Ask Lifehacker: Why Does Mobile Signal Dry Up?

Ask Lifehacker: Why Does Mobile Signal Dry Up?

Dear Lifehacker, I was at the football last weekend (go Swans!) on election night, and was trying to get election updates through my iPhone. Despite having full signal strength, I couldn’t access the web or send messages all night until I left. Could the tower have been overloaded with people doing the same thing? I’ve heard of a similar thing happening at the end of the City to Surf. Also, is there any good way around the problem? I’m with Optus, so maybe Telstra wouldn’t have as big an issue. Thanks, Disconnected

Picture by thepen

Dear Disconnected,

You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head — if there are a large number of people all in one place, they can swamp the available network, making it difficult or impossible to make calls, send text messages or browse the Internet. There’s simply not always enough capacity to go around, so your chances of getting online to browse sometimes drop dramatically. (In simplistic terms, it’s also one of the arguments raised against using wireless networks as the main source of broadband for Australia — the more people in an area, the less speed they’ll each get.)

This is very common at large concerts and sporting events, but can even happen over a wider area: when I travel to Las Vegas for CES each year, I work on the assumption that all phone networks will be hopeless most of them time. More than 100,000 people all trying to use their mobiles does not work out well.

If you’re using a provider that has its own independent infrastructure, then you might get lucky and connect up sometimes — but in a typical football crowd, even the smallest network provider (3) will probably have thousands of users. And ultimately it makes more sense to pick a phone that works where you are most of the time than at occasional special events.

I’m not aware of any good way of working around this problem: for communication purposes, text messages are a good choice (since they don’t require a continuing connection), but that doesn’t help with trying to get online. Sometimes, you just have to accept that you’re at the football and worry about the election later (which would have been a pretty good move last Saturday, given that a week later we’re still waiting to see what happens).



  • Turn off 3G in your connection settings on your phone, you’ll be able to make calls at least.
    Its what i have to do when im out at a music festival being with optus myself.

  • Further to this: networks (either mobile phone, PSTN or terrestrial data) are dimensioned based on a statistical analysis of the offered load to meet a probability of a network resource being available (say 99% availability). The dimensioning makes the assumption that the offered load is a random process with given parameters (mean calls per second, standard deviation, call duration etc).

    Non-random events will cause the availability to drop as the mean calls per second increases, or there is a longer call duration. Examples include: sporting events, concerts, New Years, massive news events.

    Hope this makes sense, I haven’t studied this for a while.

    • I thought exactly that when I read this article. Even SMS messages are not always reliable when the network is under a lot of pressure.

      A couple of years ago a friend from the UK visited me in Sydney over New Year’s Eve, and sent a text message from his UK phone, roaming on Telstra, to my Vodafone Aus phone. I got it two weeks later!

  • I have a similiar problem with Optus where my phone does not receive calls occasionally when I am inside of my house. My girlfriend has also had the same problem with her optus phone as well so it is not the phones that are the problem. I live in inner melbourne in an old house so thought that maybe the stone walls would be the problem but the Optus people don’t think it would matter.

  • I’m with Vodafone and up until about a month ago I had NO data reception at the SCG at all. Suddenly – as of about 3 weeks ago – everything is fine now! I was even able to listen to streaming radio during that same Swans game on election night!

  • Duh!!!! Hello it’s Optus only Telstra has the best web access on 3G Never had a problem that night in the same location. Was it an Iphone the deathgrip could have been an issue. LOL

  • It’s not just optus, it’s all networks at big events, and sms can be just as bad, they were taking 2-4 hours to come through at this years big day out in melbourne, making finding people impossible, next time I’m taking walkie talkies.

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