Wireless Carriers Once Again Fight Efforts At More Accurate Wireless Availability Maps

from the you-can't-fix-what-you-don't-understand dept

If you live in a rural area, or have driven across the country anytime in the last five years, you probably already know the telecom industry's wireless coverage maps are misleading -- at best. In turn, the data they deliver to the FCC is also highly suspect. Regardless, this is the data being used when we shape policy and determine which areas get broadband subsidies, and, despite some notable progress in improving this data in recent years, it's still a major problem. Last year, for example, the Trump FCC quietly buried a report showing how major wireless carriers routinely overstate wireless voice and data availability.

Facing massive political pressure from pissed off (and bipartisan) state lawmakers eager for a bigger slice of federal subsidies, the FCC has started taking the basic steps necessary to start to improve things. One of those improvements is a recent proposal (pdf) that would include requiring carriers actually drive around testing their network performance so they can provide more accurate, real-world data. This isn't a huge ask. But T-Mobile and AT&T are fighting back against the proposal, claiming it's "too expensive":

"With respect to cost, AT&T estimates that to drive test just 25 percent of the square kilometers of its nationwide 4G LTE coverage would cost approximately $45 million each year and that drive testing only 10 percent of its coverage would still cost as much as $18 million/year. Requiring that all carriers conduct such nationwide drive tests, especially on a regular basis, is simply too costly especially at a time when investment in 5G deployment is a top national priority. The [FCC order] proposes to use a statistically valid sample where carriers would be expected to conduct a certain amount of drive tests "that is statistically appropriate for the area tested." However, there is no indication of how an "area" would be defined, which makes it difficult to assess the feasibility of developing a sample."

This is, you're supposed to forget, the same AT&T that just received a $42 billion tax break from the Trump administration. This tax break was supposed to "fuel investment" and "create jobs"; instead AT&T has fired 41,000 employees since the 2017 tax cuts, and trimmed its overall 2020 CAPEX by around $3 billion. Killing net neutrality and other regulatory favors doled out billions more to these companies. Now, after four years of ceaseless taxpayer handouts, AT&T is claiming it's "too expensive" to do basic drive-by confirmation of data reliability.

AT&T wants the FCC to rely on tower data because it's easier and cheaper to collect. But regulators in both California (pdf) and Vermont have found that you can only really get accurate data from actual driving measurement programs. Small carriers have also noted that such drive tests are the only way to prove major carriers are lying about coverage. One guess on which side of the aisle the captured Ajit Pai FCC is going to come down on? Especially given it's in Pai's and the industry's best interests to portray his "hands off, deregulatory agenda" (read: mindlessly pandering to the telecom industry's biggest companies) as an incredible success?

The broadband industry has long lobbied against better broadband maps, knowing that better data will only highlight the scope of the U.S.' broadband competition and coverage problems. More recently, the industry attempted to lobby the FCC to exclude 5G from any wireless mapping improvements. Again, the motivation here is obvious. Were we to actually grasp the full failure of the telecom sector in terms of coverage, competition, and price... (especially during a health crisis that's advertising broadband as an essential utility) somebody might just get the crazy idea to actually do something about it.

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Filed Under: broadband, broadband access, data, fcc, maps, mobile access, rural
Companies: at&t, t-mobile


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2020 @ 2:11pm

    I'd bet $5 Google is already capturing this on their Street View cars. And if they aren't, the FCC could probably pay them $10m/yr to do the whole country.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2020 @ 2:13pm

    Oddly enough ATT is now running advertisements claiming their 5G network is now nationwide. The advertisements are a bit coy about precisely what is nationwide, whether the marketing, the sales, or actual services. (I suspect it is #1/2 only).

    Shame: they've never heard of it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      teka, 31 Aug 2020 @ 8:21am

      Re:

      Available on a few blocks of at least one city on each coast, plus a heavily publicized trial tower here or there. Fudge the numbers with Telco math- bam, nationwide coverage.

      That, or the Plans are available nationwide so you are free to get a pricey, un-optimized phone, pay extra and just get 4g* unless you are in the proper seat of the proper (empty) stadium.

      *well, not real 4g, which would be fast, but the unstandard "4g"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2020 @ 3:14pm

    Given that 5G is even shorter range than 4G (physics of using higher frequencies), there will be even more holes in the coverage than previously. So yes, the cell companies don't want accurate maps made of just exactly where is covered.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 28 Aug 2020 @ 10:59pm

    For all of the talk about free markets & competition making things better for citizens... they seem to not understand what those words actually mean.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2020 @ 2:40am

    It seems that some people think they can make something go away by not accepting its existence.

    If we stop testing for covid it will go away
    If we stop looking for hurricanes they will stop forming - lol

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Designerfx (profile), 29 Aug 2020 @ 3:56am

    And yet they already do this

    They already do drive tests for their own engineering and also customer complaints. So for them to say it's too expensive is rich when they should already have data.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      teka, 3 Sep 2020 @ 12:07pm

      Re: And yet they already do this

      If nothing else, they know where every tower/tranceiver is located and they know how the equipment is designed to function. A minimum effort map should be a few keystrokes away for someone in some department over there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dave, 29 Aug 2020 @ 4:40am

    Because they don't want to lose profits. Duh.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2020 @ 5:04am

    From the Trump Playbook

    Stop the testing. The more you test, the more cases you find. Testing causes awareness. Awareness = bad...ignorance = good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dickeyrat, 29 Aug 2020 @ 7:14am

    nk you Blump, and your totally-political FCC, which is in bed & having fun with every phone carrier in the nation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    afn29129 David (profile), 29 Aug 2020 @ 7:47am

    Data is already captured

    This data is already extant. Wireless carriers already know what the coverage areas are for each of their cellsites. It is part and parcel with how the cellphone system and cellsites operate. Measured signal strength, signal round trip time, and active quadrant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dickeyrat, 29 Aug 2020 @ 7:55am

    And thank you, Techdirt, for cutting off the first 90% of my comment about this topic. No, I won't type it all over again. Your loss, not mine.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2020 @ 4:37pm

    Satellites still seem to be a possible significant contributer to the monopoly problem.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Chris Brand, 31 Aug 2020 @ 9:36am

    What I expect

    Isn't the standard procedure for this sort of thing to give the providers millions of dollars to do the mapping but then to let them not bother to actually do it? That's what they did with rural roll-out, no?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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