FCC Cellular Broadband Mapping

I mostly write about broadband, but one of the most common complaints I hear from rural folks is the lack of good cellular coverage. Poor cellular coverage doesn’t seem to have gotten the same press as poor broadband, but not having access to cell phones might be more of a daily challenge than the lack of broadband.

For the first time, the new FCC maps now show us the claimed coverage everywhere for each cellular carrier. This coverage is shown on the same maps used for broadband.

People are going to find the claimed cellular coverage to be confusing since the FCC is showing coverage using massively out-of-date cellular speeds. The FCC maps only ask a cellular carrier to show if it meets the FCC definition of cellular broadband, which is embarrassingly low. A cellular carrier only needs to achieve a speed of 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to be considered covered for 4G. The FCC has two claimed speed tiers for 5G at 7/1 Mbps and 35/3 Mbps.

The FCC speed thresholds for cellular are massively out of touch with modern technology. According to Ookla’s nationwide speeds test, the national average cellular speeds at the end of the third quarter of 2022 was 148 Mbps download and 16 Mbps upload. The national median speed (meaning half of people are either faster or slower) was 75 Mbps download and 9 Mbps upload. The FCC is sticking with its obsolete definition of cellular broadband speeds for the same reasons it has stuck with using 25/3 as the official definition of broadband – the primary reason likely being the lack of a fifth FCC Commissioner.

That makes the FCC cellular maps largely useless for people in cities. What does it mean if a cellular carrier claims a 5G connection of 7/1 Mbps – that’s probably not even one bar of coverage. My house shows coverage from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, TDS (US Cellular), and Project Genesis, the new Dish Network offering. AT&T claims only 4G coverage at my house and doesn’t claim a speed capability, even though I just tested at over 150 Mbps download as I was writing this blog. The other four carriers claim 5G coverage and speeds of at least 7/1 Mbps, while T-Mobile and Project Genesis claim speeds of at least 35/3 Mbps. The FCC reporting doesn’t give me any idea if I can trust any of these carriers at my house.

That’s because cellular coverage areas are incredibly hard to map. This is something that everybody in America is already an expert on. No matter where you live, you see the bars of available data vary at your house hour-by-hour and day-by-day. Cellular networks are broadcast networks that blast signals to anybody in range of a cell tower. Cellular radio signals can be disturbed by heat, humidity, air pollution, and temperature. And the strength of the signal varies depending on the number of users on the network at a given time.

It’s convenient to picture cellular coverage areas as a circle around a tower, with the signal being broadcast outward everywhere – but that is only true to the flattest and most open places in the county. Cellular signals are blocked or deflected by impediments in the environment, like hills and buildings. While cellular signals travel decently through foliage, leaves still add distortion and cut the distance and strength of a signal. A more apt way to picture a cellular coverage area is as an amoeba with different length arms reaching in many directions.

Because of the physics of cellular delivery, the claimed coverage by cellular companies has been badly overstated. For years, cellular companies have published maps that claim they have the best nationwide coverage – but those maps are badly distorted when looking at real places. Every cell phone user understands dead spots. My house is a good example. I live downtown in a city, and cellular coverage is generally good. But I live partway up a hill, and at my house, there is zero Verizon coverage, although folks at the other end of the block can get Verizon. I use AT&T and run into AT&T dead spots as I drive around.

Rural cellular coverage in the past is often the most exaggerated. Anybody who has driven through rural America knows that a lot of the claimed coverage is bosh. The FCC is hoping to rein in the exaggerated coverage claims of cellular carriers. You can challenge the cellular coverage at your home in the same way that you can challenge landline broadband coverage. The challenge is built directly into the FCC broadband map. When you type in an address, you’ll see a place on the top right to toggle between fixed and mobile broadband. Unfortunately, the method of challenging cellular coverage is cumbersome, and I’ll cover it in another blog.

There is also a process for bulk challenges of cellular broadband by local governments. This means gathering a lot of cellular speed tests around a community, done in a way that meets the FCC rules. I’ve already seen several counties that have started the bulk speed testing to challenge the maps.