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.