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An FCC investigation has found that T-Mobile, Verizon and US Cellular did overstate their 4G LTE coverage in rural areas across the country.
The findings have prompted the FCC to overhaul the commission’s original plan to allocate $4.5 billion in government subsidies to spur 4G LTE development in rural areas. On Wednesday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said he plans to replace the program with a $9 billion fund focused on bringing faster 5G networks to rural America, which has struggled to get access to cheap, wireless internet.
“Simply put, we need to make sure that federal funding goes to areas that need it the most,” he said in today’s announcement.
The big question is how the FCC will ensure the $9 billion goes to the right places. On the same day, the commission released a report that investigated whether US mobile carriers have been submitting inaccurate wireless coverage maps to the commission for its government subsidy programs.
The coverage maps are crucial because any inflated data could mistakenly cause the FCC to deny the subsidies to a rural area that desperately needs them. The lobbying group, the Rural Wireless Alliance, has gone as far to accuse Verizon of supplying “sham” coverage maps to deprive government subsidies to smaller, rural carriers.
The potential discrepancies in the coverage data prompted the FCC to investigate by conducting its own speed tests. The commission’s team focused on the 4G LTE networks of T-Mobile, Verizon and US Cellular across 12 states. (AT&T was left out because no third-party complained to the FCC that the company’s coverage maps were “significantly overstated.”)
To conduct the speed tests, FCC staff ended up driving nearly 10,000 miles, while carrying along Samsung S9 smartphones, to check whether the 4G LTE speeds met the minimum 5 Mbps download rate. After all that driving, in addition to stationary testing, the FCC’s team found numerous gaps in all three carrier’s 4G LTE coverage.
“Only 62.3 percent of staff drive tests achieved at least the minimum download speed predicted by the coverage maps —with US Cellular achieving that speed in only 45.0 percent of such tests, T-Mobile in 63.2 percent of tests, and Verizon in 64.3 percent of tests,” the report says.
“In addition, staff was unable to obtain any 4G LTE signal for 38 percent of drive tests on US Cellular’s network, 21.3 percent of drive tests on T-Mobile’s network, and 16.2 percent of drive tests on Verizon’s network, despite each provider reporting coverage in the relevant area,” the report goes on to add.
The findings are further underscored in a series of maps that show the gaps in each carrier’s 4G LTE coverage. The FCC’s stationary tests offered similar results, and found that over half of test locations failed to reach the minimum speed and coverage requirement.
To address the problems, the FCC’s staff came up with several recommendations, one of which includes punishing carriers that submit bad coverage data to the commission. “Overstating mobile broadband coverage misleads the public and can misallocate our limited universal service funds, and thus it must be met with meaningful consequences,” the report says.
Another recommendation calls on the FCC to assemble a permanent team, funded by tax payer dollars, to audit the accuracy of mobile broadband coverage maps. They also urge the Commission to revamp how carrier’s submit official coverage maps to the FCC. “Providers should be required to submit actual on-the-ground evidence of network performance,” the report adds
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Despite the findings, the FCC will refrain from punishing the carriers because it did not find a “sufficiently clear rule violation,” according to Axios.
In response to the investigation, US Cellular and Verizon both say the fault lies with the FCC and its supposed broad requirements for submitting wireless coverage data. “We have said all along that the parameters adopted by the Commission for the submittal of broadband coverage maps would result in overstated coverage, so the conclusions in the staff report come as no surprise to us,” US Cellular told PCMag in a statement.
“Our company is not responsible for the agency’s Mobility Fund mapping problem,” Verizon told PCMag. “The industry told the FCC more than two years ago how to build a coverage map that better aligns with real-world experiences. For policy reasons, the FCC rejected the industry’s consensus proposal in favor of a more expansive definition of coverage. Verizon simply followed the FCC’s instructions.”
Critics, especially in rural areas, will probably roll their eyes at the company statements. But all three carriers say they plan on working with the FCC to improve the process of supplying accurate coverage maps. For help on selecting a carrier, you can consult our guide on the fastest mobile networks.
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