Over the last few years, I have helped dozens of counties get ready for the upcoming giant broadband grants. We’ve been very successful in helping counties identify the places in their County that don’t have broadband today – which is often drastically different than what is shown by the FCC maps. We then help county governments reach out to the ISPs in the region and open up a dialog with the goal of making sure that all rural locations get better broadband. This takes a lot of work – but it’s satisfying to see counties that are on the way to finding a total broadband solution.
In working with these counties, one thing has become clear to me. Some of these counties have a bigger cellular coverage problem than they do a broadband problem. There are often a much larger number of homes in a county that don’t have adequate cellular coverage than those who can’t buy broadband.
The counties I’ve helped have reached out to me – either directly or through an RFP looking for a consultant. Only a tiny number of the Counties identified their cellular problem up front when they hired me. Yet, when I talk to residents and businesses in the County – I hear more horror stories about poor cellular coverage than I do about poor broadband coverage.
I always knew that the cellular coverage maps published by the big cellular carriers were overstated. You might recall back before cellular advertising was all about 5G that the cellular carriers would all claim to have the best cellular coverage. They would proudly show their coverage map in the background on ads and on their websites to show how they covered most of the country.
I’ve come to learn that those maps were pure garbage. They weren’t just an exaggeration, and when you drilled down to look at specific counties, they were outright fabrications. I’ve worked recently with two counties that are the homes of major universities and one state capital. In all three of these counties, cellular coverage dies soon after people leave the biggest urban center.
If anything, I think that cellular coverage has gotten worse with the introduction of the spectrum that the carriers are all claiming as 5G. These are new frequency bands that have been introduced in the last few years to relieve the pressure on the 4G LTE networks. It makes sense that coverage would be reduced with the higher frequencies because one of the first rules of wireless technology is that higher frequencies tend to dissipate more quickly than lower frequencies. When I hear the complaints in these counties, I have to think that the 5G spectrum is not carrying as far into the rural areas.
This is a problem that is well-known to everybody in the industry, including the FCC. Back before the pandemic, the FCC came up with a plan to spend $9 billion from the universal service fund to build and equip new rural cellular towers – using a reverse auction method much like RDOF. This process derailed quickly when the biggest cellular companies produced bogus maps that Showed decent coverage in rural areas that were close to some of the smaller cellular carriers. The FCC was so disgusted by the lousy maps that it tabled the subsidy plan.
The FCC finally reconsidered this idea in 2021. Now the cellular carriers are required to produce maps every six months at the same time as ISPs report broadband coverage. If you haven’t noticed, you can see claimed cellular coverage on the same dashboard that shows the broadband map results. I haven’t spent much time digesting the new cellular maps since all of my clients are so focused on broadband. But I checked the maps in the region around where I live, and the maps still seem to exaggerate coverage. This is supposed to get better when wireless carriers are supposed to file heat maps for the coverage around each transmitter – we’ll have to see what that does to the coverage. It’s going to get harder for a wireless carrier to claim to cover large swaths of a county when it’s only on a tiny handful of towers.
There is a supposed way for folks to help fix the cellular maps. The FCC has a challenge process that requires taking a speed test using the FCC cellular speed test app. Unfortunately, this app requires a lot of speed tests in a given neighborhood before the FCC will even consider the results. I’m doubtful that most rural folks know of this app or are motivated enough to stop along the side of the road and repeatedly take the speed tests. And frankly, who knows if it will make any real difference even if they do?
The big cellular companies have clearly not invested in many new rural cell towers over the last decade because they’d rather have the FCC fork out the funding. I haven’t the slightest idea if $9 billion is enough money to solve the problem or even put a dent in it. No doubt, the FCC will saddle the program with rules that will add to the cost and result in fewer towers being built. But whatever is going to happen, it needs to start happening soon. We are not a mobile society, and it’s outrageous that a lot of people can’t make a call to 911, let alone use all of the features that are now controlled by our cell phones.