The Wi-Fi and cellular icons on Android aren’t just there to simply show whether you’re connected or not. It might be subtle, but they also give users a hint of the quality of their network connections. Users might take it for granted, but arriving at that representation isn’t just simple math. By next year, however, it might get even more complicated. Commits in the Android Open Source Project or AOSP reveal that the next Android release might give carriers the ability to define the signal strength show in those bars, which could put into question how accurate their representation might be.
Currently, the LTE signal bars are computed from the cellular signal strength in your particular location. This can be seen in Android’s Settings app, expressed in dBM or decibels per milliwatt. This value, in turn, is derived from hardware-specific configuration values that define how much dBm translates into a bar.
As it is hardware-specific, manufacturers have always been able to control that number. But starting Android P, carriers will also be able to control that as well. The changes in the source code spotted by XDA seem to have been requested by the likes of Vodafone Libertel, Verizon, and Telstra.
What this means in practice is that carriers will be able to adjust the bars to better reflect the signal strength specific to a location. Not all markets have the same dBm settings, so it’s not exactly a one size fits all kind of situation. What may seem like a poor signal in one market might actually be the normal level in another.
Of course, this feature could be open to abuse, with carriers trying to mask or pad the bars to make it seem that the signal is better than it really is. Fortunately, Google isn’t giving carriers total control and there will always be apps that will be able to reveal the true signal strength, regardless of bars.