2021 is going to into history as the year when the whole country is finally talking about rural broadband. The pandemic made it clear that many millions of households and even entire communities don’t have adequate broadband. Congress and the White House responded by funding billions of dollars for improved broadband in the ARPA legislation. We are perhaps edging closer to an infrastructure bill that will allocate tens of billions of additional dollars to fix a lot of the rural broadband divide.
An issue that seems to have fallen off the radar is rural cellular coverage. In 2020, the FCC halted its plans to fund a reverse auction for a $9 billion 5G Fund that was intended to improve rural cellular coverage. That program was halted after it became apparent that Verizon and others were reporting inaccurate cellular coverage data to the FCC – much like the problem we have with FCC broadband maps. In July of this year, the FCC started another round of data collection, so the plans for the 5G fund must still be in play.
The topic has come to my attention recently as my consulting firm was doing several surveys in rural counties. In these surveys, between 30% and 50% of survey respondents said that they had little or no cellular coverage at their homes. In all of these cases, the FCC data from cellular carriers showed ubiquitous coverage throughout each county.
To be fair, the FCC reporting for cellular coverage is outdated. In its annual report to Congress, the FCC reports the percentage of homes and businesses in every county that can receive 5/1 Mbps LTE coverage. Ookla recently reported that the millions of speed tests show that the average national cellular download speed in early 2021 was 76.6 Mbps for AT&T, 82.4 Mbps for T-Mobile, and 67.2 Mbps for Verizon. The FCC is still reporting on a cellular speed that is far slower than the speed that a majority of cellular customers can receive – much in the manner that it keeps focusing on 25/3 Mbps as the definition of broadband.
But it’s really troublesome when the FCC reports to Congress that whole counties can get 5/1 Mbps cellular broadband when residents tell us they have almost no cellular overage. It’s hard to understand why members of Congress who live in some of these rural counties don’t push back on the FCC.
I’ve heard the same kind of rural stories about rural cellular coverage that I’ve heard about rural broadband. People say that coverage peters out during their commute home, and they have no coverage in their neighborhood. I heard the other day from somebody who told me they only get weak cellular coverage in one tiny part of their backyard – anybody of my age remembers running around the corner of airports trying to find that magic spot.
I would venture to say that almost everybody reading this blog knows of cellular dead spots. I live in the center of a city, and there is no Verizon coverage at my house – yet there is good Verizon coverage at the other end of my block. I have relatives that live in a nearby older suburb who have weak and intermittent cellular coverage for the entire neighborhood from both AT&T and Verizon. Every Uber driver in this area can paint a pretty accurate picture of the location of cellular dead zones – and there are a lot of them.
Cellular dead zones are largely a matter of geography and topography. I don’t know if it’s realistic to think that Verizon should be required to show the dead zone at my house on its cellular coverage maps. But I wonder how many people buy homes in hilly cities like mine, only to find that cellphones don’t work. I decided to not make an offer to buy a home here when my cellphone didn’t work at the house.
The problems in cellular rural areas are much more of a concern than my half-block of bad coverage. In rural counties, poor coverage comes from the combination of two issues – distance from a tower and terrain. In cities, there are cell towers within a mile or two of everybody, and with the introduction of small cells, even closer in many cases. In rural counties, there might only be a few cell sites, and many residents live more than two miles from the nearest tower.