HOW COMPANIES MEASURE UP WHEN IT COMES TO CAPACITY Monday January 28 12:00am The Boston Globe While the main focus of this study was to get a handle on the relative frequency of "dead spots" among the six major wireless carriers serving Greater Boston, we also did other surveys to see if there were major differences in network capacity. One of the big complaints among wireless users is that in times and places where a lot of people are trying to make a call - like a rush-hour traffic jam or a suburban office park during the workday - their carrier's capacity in the area is used up, and they get a fast busy signal or can't get service. So, when we were stuck in 4:30 p.m. traffic jams on the lower deck of Interstate 93 or at the end of the Mass. Turnpike, we would try three to seven rounds of calls on each of the six major carriers serving Greater Boston (AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint PCS, Verizon Communications, and VoiceStream), checking to see which, if any, carriers would have no signal available. Once again, we found no screaming differences. Here's a sample of our experiences: Thursday, Jan. 10, 4:15 p.m., in the middle of the fifth floor of the Government Center garage: One Sprint PCS call has to be attempted twice because of a "network busy" signal. All 17 other calls (three on each carrier) go through fine the first time. Fifteen minutes later, at City Hall Plaza: 18 of 18 calls go through fine. Same evening, 6:15 p.m., at the Longwood MBTA Green Line stop: 18 of 18 go through fine. Friday afternoon, Jan. 11, 1:20 p.m., at the Marlborough Corporate Center west of I-495: One AT&T Wireless connection is fatally garbled. All 17 other calls go through fine. Same day, 2:30 p.m., Clock Tower Place, Maynard: 18 of 18 go through. Same day, 4 p.m., Weston Public Library: First Cingular call needs two tries to go through. Next one needs three tries. The last one goes through on the first try. First Verizon call takes two attempts, then numbers two and three go through fine. AT&T, Nextel, Sprint PCS and VoiceStream all work on all three calls. Same day, 4:30 p.m., inching down the Pike onto the Southeast Expressway: One Sprint PCS call takes about 20 seconds to pick up and go through. Thirty-five of 35 other calls go through fine. Thursday, Jan. 17, 11:30 a.m., Egleston Square, Boston: One VoiceStream call needs two attempts; 17 others go through fine. Same day, 12:30 p.m., Mattapan Square: 18 of 18 calls go through fine. Friday, Jan. 18, 4:30 p.m., inching down the lower deck of 93 into Boston. In the fifth round of calls, one AT&T Wireless call takes two attempts to go through. Forty-one other calls go through fine. To summarize the demerit points: Two for AT&T, two for Cingular, one each for Sprint PCS, Verizon, and VoiceStream. A gold star for Nextel FINDING THE PLACES WHERE CALLING IS A LOST CAUSE Monday January 28 12:00am The Boston Globe "Hold on, I'm about to hit a bad spot." "If I lose you, I'll call you right back." Probably even more than absolute dead spots where you can't get coverage, what really annoys wireless phone subscribers are places where, with uncanny precision, calls break up or die completely. Globe readers we asked for comments last month had dozens of complaints about places they always lose calls. For Stephen Dill of Sharon, a Sprint PCS subscriber, it's the stretch of the Red Line north of North Quincy and the commuter rail line from Ruggles to Back Bay. Areas around Newton City Hall and on Centre Street between Newton Corner and Commonwealth Avenue were cited as call-dropping zones by a half-dozen Newton residents using various carriers, including AT&T, Cingular, and Verizon. John O'Connell of Carver found he can't use his Cingular phone at his home or on long stretches of Route 58 in Hanson and Halifax. "Instead of all these promotions, I'd settle for a good, constant signal," O'Connell wrote. While we found about 75 places in Eastern Massachusetts where at least one carrier had no signal, it's certain there were many more dead spots we missed. The maps accompanying these stories (page C4) are intended to show the relative number of dead spots among carriers. Secondarily, they may give an indication of which carrier is likeliest to have the most reliable coverage in the part of Greater Boston where you make most of your calls. Because dropped calls are one of the biggest complaints of wireless subscribers and a big reason many switch to another carrier, companies like Verizon and an independent San Francisco wireless testing firm, Telephia, regularly do mobile surveys in which they have cars or vans filled with phones and costly electronics gear make a steady stream of calls from every carrier's phone, then record where calls got dropped or faded out. We couldn't safely or legally come up with a way to have one person make calls on six phones at once while driving. So we tried another version of this test, driving the same stretches of Route 128, the Mass. Turnpike, and the Southeast Expressway within the same 30- to 90-minute time period, testing each carrier in succession, and seeing if we could keep one call up the whole time. All six carriers - AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint PCS, Verizon, and VoiceStream - passed all three tests with no dropped calls. It may have helped that we did the tests during midday, not during rush hours when more people might have been trying to use their phone and we might have lost cell coverage. Along Route 128 between Route 4 in Lexington and Route 38 in Woburn, and from Route 18 in Weymouth up Route 3 to Furnace Brook Parkway in Quincy, all six carriers had steady coverage with no more than a few very short blips. In a longer test going from the Mass. Pike-Route 9 interchange in Framingham to the Route 128-Route 20 interchange in Weston, both Cingular and VoiceStream got a little ragged east of the Framingham service area and we got that down-the-drainpipe sound quality, but only for a few seconds before the call apparently got picked up by another cell site and cleared up. Peter J. Howe can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.