Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mapping cell coverage in the Glengarriff Valley

As a follow up to my Froyo on a Stick experiment, I wondered why the signal in the Glengarriff valley was so spotty and where it was coming from.

I found two apps in the Android Market which report and log cell data: "Antennas" and "RF Signal Tracker". I enabled the logging on both apps and cycled around the area. In the immediate vicinity of where I was staying the signal was almost non-existent. But not far away there was acceptable signal levels.

It turns out these apps not only record cell ID, and signal strength, but also (from somewhere?!) downloads the location of the cell towers.

Plotting this data on Google Maps yielded some answers. It turns out the tower was to the north and not the east as I had originally thought. The signal into the valley was being attenuated by a ridge of the Caha Pass a little higher than the tower (despite no line-of-sight, diffraction of radio waves allows some signal through).  On either side of the ridge were peaks exceeding 400m elevation: so it would appear this constrained reception to a beam within the valley.

My data would appear to confirm this. Within the yellow wedge it seemed possible to get a signal (red dots indicate points where I could connect). In the grey wedge a signal was mostly not obtainable.

Data acquisition and visualization

I ran both "Antennas" and "RF Signal Strength" together. The UI in the latter app wasn't very good... it was slow to respond and would frequently hang. Fortunately the logging function worked. The "Antennas" UI on the other hand appeared to work better, but failed to log much data.

The data from "RF Signal Strength" looks like this:

1,51766086,-9613348,-99,14 Aug 2010 13:56:03,272,1,47,11011,52181474,-1357067,GPRS,-1,IDLE,NO
2,51766086,-9613348,-99,14 Aug 2010 13:56:26,272,1,47,11011,52181474,-1357067,GPRS,-1,IDLE,NO
3,51766086,-9613348,-99,14 Aug 2010 13:56:27,272,1,47,11011,52181474,-1357067,GPRS,-1,IDLE,NO

I wrote a script (Java + Javascript) to plot this on Google Maps Terrain layer. Then copied a screen grab into Google Draw Tool to annotate.

Froyo on a stick

When faced with an impossibly weak cell signal and an Android phone, what can you do?

Recently while on holiday in the Glengarriff valley, west County Cork, I was faced with this problem.

Android 2.2 (aka "Froyo") has a cool feature that allows the phone to become a WiFi access point. This is intended to be a convenient way to allow a laptop to use the phone's internet connection. Normally the phone would be sitting right next to the laptop. But it doesn't have to be so close. A line-of-sight range of more than 20 meters is possible.

At my location I was getting tantalizing brief connections to the cell network (Vodafone IE), and occasionally the odd GPRS IP packet might make it through. But nothing close to usable.

As a rule of thumb you can improve a weak radio signal by raising the height of the antenna.  So I got several planks of wood. Strapped them together with duct tape to form a make shift antenna mast  about 8m in height. I switched the mobile hotspot feature on, taped the phone to the top of the mast and raised it.

And sure enough I was able to get a usable [*] connection where none existed before.

[*] The connection was only GPRS and there was still packet loss... but sufficient to get email in and out. Perhaps another few meters might have made the difference.