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Wi-Fi hotspots are a threat to my sanity

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A well-intentioned effort to move you off LTE can sometimes leave you with no data at all

I'm walking through Midtown Manhattan, likely one of the most RF-saturated plots of real estate on the planet. During a workday, AT&T LTE isn't fast around here — I don't think any network is — but after years of tweaking and building out, it's consistent and reliable, at least. It gets the job done.

Then, the nightmare: the "LTE" symbol in my iPhone's status bar is replaced by three arcs, signifying that I've glommed onto Wi-Fi somewhere.

Everything stops loading. My phone, just moments ago a glorious node on the information superhighway and my irreplaceable connection to the world around me, has been reduced to a voice calling box no more advanced than a Motorola DynaTAC circa 1985. Tweets won't load; the dream of snapping and Meerkatting my coffee run has been dashed. The sky fades to gray as the urban canyon around me starts to close in. I feel trapped, lost, out of touch.

What if someone sends me an email in the next 30 seconds?

The underlying problem is real

Okay, yes, I'm substantially overdramatizing it, but the underlying problem is real: phones prefer Wi-Fi over cellular data, even when it doesn't really work. My cable provider offers access to a Wi-Fi network that's theoretically supposed to give you fast internet access on your mobile devices from thousands of hotspots around the country at no additional cost. It's a common benefit — Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision, and many others offer it — that helps alleviate the strain on your wireless plan's data bucket and, in an optimal situation, gets you around bogged-down LTE. Some ISPs, like Cablevision, have enough confidence in these hotspots nowadays to turn them into makeshift voice networks.

In reality, I find that it's more trouble than it's worth. A certain percentage of the hotspots simply don't appear to work at all, even though you're able to connect to them and get a strong signal. And the problem is exacerbated on phones because you're moving around — Wi-Fi isn't designed to travel very far, so you're constantly moving in and out of range. Phones have a tendency to hang on to a Wi-Fi hotspot far longer than they should, so at the frayed outer edges of a hotspot's broadcast zone where 140-character tweets refuse to load, you're still connected — even though you're awash in LTE that is strong enough to actually transport data.

In my case — and, admittedly, this is a uniquely Manhattan-ish problem — my phone also sees my office's hotspot for several blocks, but it doesn't work at that distance. I often end up switching off Wi-Fi altogether whenever I'm walking around the city, which fuzzes location services and stops me from connecting to Wi-Fi networks that actually work well. Android offers an option to automatically avoid crappy and non-functional hotspots, but it has never worked particularly well for me.

Think of the Meerkats

What's the answer? Phones need to let go — don't try so hard to hang on to a weak Wi-Fi signal when a strong LTE one is available, too. And before they switch to Wi-Fi in the first place, they should run a quick test on a few common websites to make absolutely certain that there's a good, stable internet connection there.

A New York City where I can't reliably Meerkat is no place I want to be.