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Frequently Asked Questions
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These are some of the more common questions received by email. If you have a question that you'd like answered then why not post it on GeckoBeachForums.com?

FAQ's: Index | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3
  1. Why does this web site exist?
  2. Which provider do you recommend?
  3. How does cellular work?
  4. There's so many handsets to choose from, so why do you only review a few?
  5. Do you have the service unlocking code for my phone?
  6. What's the difference between Mobile, Cellular, and Digital PCS phones?
  7. Can I choose an alternative long distance provider on my cell phone?
  8. What is a SP-lock?
  9. I purchased a phone on eBay. Why can't I use it?
  10. Why don't you provide rates or opinions on other Canadian or US providers?
  11. I travel between the USA and Canada several times during the year. What are my options for inexpensive roaming?
  12. What recommendations do you have to keep your cell phone bills down?
  13. I have unresolved issues with my provider. Where can I vent these?
  14. Just how many people visit this site?
  15. Can someone track where I am if my phone is on?
  16. Why make maps of transmission equipment locations?
  17. Why are there no maps for Montreal, Edmonton, Seattle, etc?
  18. My friend's cell phone works in a certain location but mine doesn't -- why?
  19. Will many more cellular towers be established in the near future?
  20. How do I use the Microcell tower locator numbers on the maps?
  21. How do I use the Debug Mode on my Telus Mobility Sony Phone?

Can someone track where I am if my phone is on?

If someone really wanted to they could narrow down your geographic region but not much further than that. This is another question I sometimes get from people that are concerned with their privacy and others knowing where they might be hiding. For the general public there are no easy routes to take to find information regarding where someone (or more correctly, someone's cell phone) might be.

A service provider would be able to track down which cellular tower you are using, or maybe triangulate your position using several towers, but this would only give a course resolution of where you might be. This service is not provided by service providers, simply because it infringes on the privacy of their customers.

Several people own cell phones for emergencies, and unlike a landline call to an enhanced 911 or other emergency service number, there is no geographical trace of where the call originated from beyond a telephone number. In fact, my first emergency phone call was made from the municipality of Langford, just west of Victoria in the late 1990's and the call got routed to the MTSO switching centre in Vancouver and was passed along to the emergency service centre in Burnaby, some 100 km from my present location. This then required the centre to manually forward my call to Victoria -- not good. Since that time, providers have enhanced their switching stations to route to the nearest centre off the tower your call is being made from, but still this sometimes leads to emergency calls being redirected to another city, province or even country. In other cases still, people have left their cellular line open and police cars have run up and down streets with full sirens while the emergency operator listens on the other end for the sirens. This is also not a very efficient way to track someone down.

The US government has mandated that all cellular phones be traceable for "emergency purposes only". Companies, such as Cell-Loc out of Calgary, have been working with Telus Mobility to track cell phones using their tower sites down to a range of about 10 m if there was a need to do so. The other alternative is to embed GPS tracking into cell phones, such as is mentioned on the Japanese Cell Phone page, but in order for GPS to work, the phone must have an unobstructed view of the sky, which is rarely the case within densely-packed cities.

Starting in late 2005, some providers now offer tracking of cell phones for a fee. You must activate this feature with the provider and agree to disclose your position. This might be very beneficial for a 911 call, but a real privacy issue. On newer phones look for a setting that allows/disallows position tracking. This setting should be defaulted to 'disallowed'. Some company-issued cell phones may activate this feature to track their employees and they are willing to pay a service provider the monthly tracking fee. So if this is a concern for you with a company phone, then investigate first before agreeing to carry a company phone.

Why make maps of transmission equipment locations?

Early in 1998 I noticed a transmission tower under construction on the Pat Bay Highway in Victoria and took a guess at what it might be. Soon after noticing this first tower, I began to notice quite a few of them around the region.

Once you find a few tower locations you learn a couple of things: first, the general configuration of each provider's equipment; and second, the approximate distance between cells. Once you have located enough cells from a provider, you can more-or-less predict where the next cell will need to be to ensure continuous coverage.

Environmental hydro towersWhen I first started noting where these towers where, I contacted the business whom the tower was located on. Most businesses (but definitely not all) were quite helpful in providing this information. Residential locations are almost impossible to get information from as many residents don't want the towers in their backyards and if they do have one, they don't want anyone to know about it. I can understand their concern as a cellular provider may give you $5000+ per year to locate one of these things in a few square metres of your backyard. I found all of the cellular providers unwilling to provide exact locations of transmission equipment, nor were they willing to confirm the site locations I had found.

The maps were made for a number of reasons. First, many people I knew started to wonder what all these new towers were for. Several people asked me about the new tower along the Trans-Canada at Millstream as well as the few along the Pat Bay Highway. Second, I had these maps of the Victoria area and had made the effort to map the sites, so why not share this information with everyone? Third, finding the sites is a challenge since you're not supposed to know that they exist (at least in the provider's minds), so I consider finding the sites equivalent to a hunt (of sorts). Lastly, it gives me an excuse to try out new bike routes and visit new places in the city.
Of course after Victoria was mapped, the next place was Vancouver. I wasn't over in Vancouver enough to devote time to searching the city for cells, so instead I put up a teaser map of Vancouver West to see if anyone was interested in helping map the Vancouver sites. Sure enough after a few months and a lot of submissions, several areas of Vancouver were put online.

Why are there no maps for Montreal, Edmonton, Seattle, etc?

Maps take quite a while to generate and post cellular tower locations. Of course, the locations of the towers themselves need to be found by people that have the time to both find the sites and post the information. I simply cannot do it all and that is why there are no maps for Canadian cities, including Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Montreal, Quebec City, or St. Johns. Several users from the US have also asked about maps for major cities as well.
I have mapped cell sites in: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Sydney, Brisbane, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Tokyo, Hakodate, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Quito, Paris, Barcelona, Qingdao, Beijing, Amman and Cairo; however, I have way too few sites in these cities to place maps on this site. Having said all that, contributions of cell sites locations for existing or new maps on this site are always welcome!

My friend's cell phone works in a certain location but mine doesn't -- why?

There's no easy answer to this question since there are several factors that determine where and when cell phones will and will not work. Here are some common reasons why:

  • Some cell phones output higher amounts of radiation and can communicate better with the cell sites in weak coverage areas.
  • A weaker battery may limit communication between your phone and the cell site.
  • The location in the room might be a determining factor, even a few cm can make a difference. Try to minimize potential interferences from cement and metal and move into a more open area. Even switching ears can help.
  • Different providers locate their cell sites in different areas. Your phone might be in a dead zone, whereas your friend can use theirs. All providers have dead zones.
  • Even though your phones are using the same provider they might be using different frequencies. Turning off your phone and then turning it back on might help it lock onto the best available frequency.

Will many more cellular towers be established in the near future?

This issue has to do mainly with frequency allocations. Traditional cellular phones in North America operate in the 800 MHz band and this is what both Mobility and Rogers use for their analog phones. In 1995, Industry Canada opened a new frequency for digital PCS services in the 1900 MHz or 1.9 GHz band and gave parts of this new band to the four providers (Bell Mobility, Rogers, Telus Mobility, Microcell). Mobility and Rogers (in BC) decided to operate their digital PCS services in a space of their older allocation of the 800 MHz band so that they could take advantage of their existing towers, among other reasons. Microcell only could use the newer 1.9 GHz band.

Frequency FigureHigher frequency transmissions cannot cover as large of an area as lower frequency transmissions. Therefore 1.9 GHz transmissions need a greater number of sites to provide equal coverage to an area that uses 800 MHz cells. In B.C., 1.9 GHz sites need to be spaced about 3-4 km or so apart to ensure continuous coverage between cells. Using 800 MHz, sites can be spaced up to about 10-12 km apart.

This doesn't mean that you're going to see a ton of new sites pop up though. Base stations take quite a bit of effort to secure and build and it is a lot easier to place new equipment at established sites. It is not uncommon to see 2 or 3 providers using one tower for their transmission equipment.

How do I use the Microcell tower locator numbers on the maps?

This question gives an inside to how Microcell Connexions' network works. For more information on using your phone to access network information see both the secrets page and the map interpretation FAQ page.

On most phones you'll either need to input a special code or use special cables to access a 'field test' mode. There's two example cities below of how the numbers work, but these may be applied to almost anywhere!

Vancouver Area
Generally Microcell uses three cells per cell site and these seem to be arranged as shown in the figure to the right. With your phone in field test mode and at the correct screen (e.g., screen 11 on a Nokia 6190), the Cell Identification or CID field shows a 2 to 4 digit number, of which the first 1 to 3 digits indicates the tower identification number (this is the number shown on a pink background on the maps) and the last digit indicates a particular cell on the tower (the number is always 1, 2, or 3). For example, locate the Microcell cell on the Vancouver West map near the intersection of Blanca and 10th Ave (just east of UBC). The map indicates CID 20 and if you heading along 10th Ave. towards UBC you will find your phone's CID changes from 201 to 202 as you pass the apartment buildings just east of the Blanca and 10th Ave. intersection. You will also pick up CID 203 if you head north along Blanca.

You can use the array pattern on the figure to the right to estimate the relative direction to the cell site you are tracking. For example, if you picked up cell site 203, the tower is somewhere between SW and SE of your position. Once you think you have found the cell site, circle the building or tower and see if you obtain 3 different cell numbers, each with the same prefix. Note that if you circle the building too close you may end up in a shadow area and obtain erratic readings -- about 100m or 1 city block away from the building is a good identification radius.

Victoria Area
All cell locations have a four digit number that is unique to the cell tower plus one digit for the individual cell. Maps show the first four digits and the fifth digit will be a 1, 2, or 3 as the Vancouver sites. The only exception to this numbering system in the Victoria area is the special umbrella cell that Microcell has placed in St. Andrew's Square, which contains the Fido Flagship store on the ground level. This cell has the CID of 19990.

Repeaters have their own CID's as well and therefore you cannot figure out where the repeater broadcasts to, unless you go look at the repeater's configuration.
Live in another city? Please let me know how Microcell has configured their network!

How do I use the Debug Mode on my Telus Mobility Sony Phone?

This question gives an inside to how Telus Mobility's network works. For more information on using your phone to access network information see both the secrets page and the map interpretation FAQ page.

To access the debug menu on 800 and 1900 MHz Sony phones type 111111 (6 1's) into your phone and press the jog-dial.
Now with the jog-dial select Field Debug. The Field Debug security code for older Telus Mobility/Clearnet phones is 362867 or DOCTOR. For Sprint PCS phones enter 040793. Other Sony phones not on Sprint or Telus Mobility/Clearnet PCS (e.g. Mobility) will use a different code -- try the default code of 000000.

Digital field debug screen The menu choice of Screen allows you to monitor the signal strengths, and this is going to make your life a lot easier if you like hunting down tower sites. In digital mode, clicking on Screen gives you two lines of information similar to this picture.
The "174" in the screen example is the one of three cells on the tower which your phone is currently talking to. Cell or 'pseudonoise or PN offset' 174 is part of what I call Telus Mobility tower configuration #1. How I determine Telus Mobility tower configuration is take the minimum offset number of the tower and divide by 6, since Telus Mobility only uses every 6th offset (see tables below). Tower configuration #1 contains 3 offsets: 006, 174, and 342 (each offset is separated by 168); the phone is currently dealing with offset 174. CDMA technology allows your phone to talk to offsets on up to 6 different towers at once, but this decimal number is the cell you are currently dealing with. Once in a call, this number remains fixed on the screen, even though you may move into another cell.

Telus Mobility (East) PCS users only: Every 4th offset is used; offsets within a cell site are separated by 160.
Bell Mobility PCS users only: Every 4th offset is used; offsets within a cell site are separated by 4.
Sprint PCS users only: Every 2nd offset is used; offsets within a cell site are separated by 170.

Tower offsetsTelus Mobility commonly sets their sites up with 3 cells, each separated by about 120 degrees. The lowest offset number will often cover the area from 0 degrees (North) to about 120 degrees (moving clockwise -- see figure to the right). The middle offset will cover the area from 120 to 240 degrees and the high offset from 240 back to 0 degrees. The actual angles will not be separated by 120 degrees since it is difficult to accommodate this angling on a square building or hydro pole rack. Furthermore, cells may be angled to cover areas of higher network traffic.

Given the PN offset information you can figure out where the site is located relative to where you are. In the above example, offset 174 covers the southern sector of our figure, so therefore the site is to the north. Once you think you have found the site, circle it clockwise and see if the offsets change from 174 to 342 to 006 to 174 again. Keep reading to find out your approximate distance to the site...

You can use the tables below to figure out the offsets relative to the tower configuration number:

Low Mid High
Low Mid High
Low Mid High
Low Mid High

Back to the Field Debug Screen:
The "2" is the receive state of your phone, where the number is one of the following:
0=init OR no service; 1=sync channel; 2=paging channel OR standby; 3=traffic channel init; 4=traffic channel (phone in use); 5=exit.

The "AD" is the hexidecimal number of the receive strength of the nearest tower. Now instead of 5 bars you have a value between 0 and 255. The lowest possible value is 80, indicating no service. As the signal gets stronger, this value will increase to FF, then wrap around to 00 and then head up to the highest possible value of 7F. Just as a hexidecimal reminder, hex goes from 0 to 9, then A, B, C, D, E, F, so if you convert 12 to hex you get C.
If the signal strength number goes above 00 then you are within about 150 m of a cell site. The highest number I have ever obtained is 35, about 6 m from a cell.

The "X A" is fixed and unused.

The "7F" is a power control adjust value. It says fixed at 7F while idling, but will change during a call.

Analog field debug screen While the phone is in analog mode, clicking on Screen will give you two lines of information similar to the picture to the left.
The first four digits are the AMPS control channel you are currently dealing with. If you watch the screen carefully after a call (e.g., dial *228, press SEND, then END) you will notice this number changes a few times, cycling through the standard control channels. This number changes 6-7 times, then the phone goes looking for a CDMA signal "000 0 80" then the phone cycles again about 6-7 times before picking the strongest control channel. Once your phone has picked the strongest channel it then registers with the Rogers network. One control channel is assigned per each cell within your area and like CDMA, only non-adjacent cells may have the same control channel.
During a call the first four digits change again, but the number displayed changes each time you hit the send key. This number is the voice channel you are using that is assigned at the initiation of the call and will be different each time you place a call. The voice channel number will also change as you move between cells.

The 16427 on the second line is the System Identification or S.I.D. that is associated with the system you are using. A-band carriers (usually non-wireline telephone companies) use odd numbers and B-band carriers (usually wireline telephone companies) use even numbers. Since this picture was taken prior to the Telus/Clearnet purchase, a Rogers SID is shown with an odd number. These days you're more likely to see an even number since the phone will roam on a Mobility SID. By monitoring the SID number you may be able to determine the boundaries of toll-free local calling if your provider uses different SIDs for different geographical regions.

Also, the screen does not update as you move into a different cell, you must manually force the phone to show you a new value (e.g., dial *228). This is because AMPS does not check for a stronger control channel at the same rate as CDMA, but rather checks either with an event (e.g., an outgoing call) or a timeout of about 20 minutes.

To return your phone to normal you can either repeat the 111111 procedure and enter the field debug screen again OR turn your phone OFF and then ON.

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