Regulation - What is it Good For? The Industry

The Rural Cellular Crisis

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.

Regulation - What is it Good For?

Rural Cellular Coverage

When working in rural areas, I find invariably that any county that has poor rural broadband also has poor cellular coverage. If you plot a 2 or 3-mile circle around the existing cell towers in many counties, it becomes quickly obvious that cell coverage is non-existent in many places. The real cellular coverage in rural areas is drastically different than the national coverage maps that cellular carriers have been advertising for years.

The FCC announced a process to address this issue in October 2020 when it announced the creation of a 5G Fund for Rural America. This will be a $9 billion fund that comes from the Universal Service Fund and that will provide subsidies for wireless carriers to build and equip new rural cell towers. This fund would work through a reverse auction in the same manner as RDOF, with the only bidders in the auction being licensed cellular carriers. The first reverse auction will be for $8 billion, with the rest specifically set aside for tribal areas.

The FCC tried this a few years earlier and abandoned the process when it became obvious that the cellular coverage maps created by the big cellular companies had little to do with reality. As part of that effort the FCC required cellular carriers to submit maps of cellular coverage as a prelude to launching this fund. The smaller cellular companies all complained that the big cellular company maps were wrong and were aimed at locking them out of the reverse auction. The FCC agreed and canceled plans for the fund until the 2020 announcement.

I haven’t been following this issue closely enough at the FCC to understand why it’s taking so long to launch the endeavor, but I have to think that mapping is still a primary issue. Then FCC has now included cellular coverage in the same BDC mapping process used for broadband. When the new maps were released there were a lot of public complaints that the new FCC cellular maps still overstate rural coverage.

There is a map challenge process for the public to provide feedback to try to fix the cellular maps by taking speed tests from rural locations – but the process is cumbersome, and it’s likely that few people know about it or are providing the speed tests in the specified way. The speed tests must be logged through an FCC app.

There is no question that something like this funding is badly needed. It’s hard to justify building rural cell towers and installing radios at a tower will only see a handful of homes. Remote rural cell sites can’t possibly generate enough money to justify the cost of the radios and backhaul, let alone the towers. One of the issues that the FCC is going to have to face is that any subsidy for this issue might need to be permanent if the goal is to keep cell towers operating where few people live.

Poor cell coverage is devastating to an area. There are huge swaths of the country where folks can’t reach 911 by cellphone. We can’t get serious about smart agriculture without the bare minimum network to provide connectivity. No cell coverage makes it hard to do tasks that the rest of us take for granted.

One of the interesting things about the timing of this effort is how the rural cellular industry will benefit from the BEAD grants. There is no fiber near many of the best spots for rural towers, and the BEAD grants will fund the construction of a lot of fiber in rural areas that could be used to provide backhaul to new cell sites.

Interestingly, one of the things that was missed in creating the BEAD rules was any requirement for BEAD grant winners to provide fiber connectivity to rural cell towers at a fair price. That would have been a good opportunity for these different federal programs to mesh together for the benefit of both wireless and wireline rural broadband. One of the legitimate complaints made by cellular companies is that they are often quoted extremely high prices for broadband connectivity at cell towers – a lot of ISPs look at cell towers as a chance to make a lot of money.

Communities with poor cellular coverage need to keep an eye on this FCC program to make sure that some cellular carrier seeks the funding for building in their county. Just like with the BEAD grants, I have no idea of $9 billion is enough to get cellular coverage everywhere – but it is a good start.

The Industry

Poor Rural Connectivity Costs Lives

The Washington Post wrote an article recently that talked about how poor rural connectivity cost lives during a tornado in Louisiana. Around the country there are now elaborate alerts systems in areas subject to tornados and other dangerous weather events. These alerts have been shown to save lives since they give folks enough time to seek shelter or get out of the path of a storm. I apologize that the article is behind a paywall, but here is the link for anybody who can read it.

This story is not unique, and the same thing plays out whenever a bad storm passes through areas with poor broadband and cellular coverage. In this case, a family was killed by the storm because they didn’t see the storm alerts, and other people were unable to reach them to tell them about the alerts. In this particular case, a husband and wife tried to repeatedly to warn the family about the storm. But their landline connection was terrible, they didn’t have good broadband, and the cellular coverage was inadequate – so nobody was able to reach the family that ultimately got killed by the storm.

I’ve created lists many times of the benefits of rural broadband, but until I read this article, I never thought to say that good broadband saves lives. The government has spent a lot of money creating emergency alert systems for various purposes, including storm warnings. I live in a city, and I get alerts from the City for all sorts of things, including storm alerts. Living in a city means I have the option to receive alerts by text, email, or even an automated voice call – and the alerts reach me.

AT&T has collected billions of federal funding to create the First Responder Network Authority as part of the larger FirstNet effort. AT&T told the Washington Post that it added 60 small cellular sites in Caddo Parish in recent years, where this storm struck. But it’s likely that most of these sites were placed to beef up the network where most folks live and do not extend far in the rural parts of the parish.

My consulting firm administers a lot of broadband surveys every year in rural counties. These surveys are mostly aimed at helping to define areas that have inadequate broadband. But in practically every rural survey we have ever done, we find 30% of more homes saying that they don’t have home cellular coverage – sometimes a much higher percentage.

There are some potential solutions being considered to help solve this problem, but like everything the FCC gets involved in, it’s complicated. The FCC announced a $9 billion 5G fund at the end of 2020 that is aimed at improving rural cellular coverage. The mechanics of that subsidy fund have not yet been announced, and like other broadband initiatives, it seems like FCC wants to see better cellular coverage maps before trying to fund a solution. My first take is that the cellular coverage in the new FCC mapping system is probably in worse shape than the landline broadband maps.

The idea of using federal funds to improve rural cellular coverage is further complicated by the huge amounts of federal funding that are aimed at improving rural broadband. It would be extremely wasteful to give the cellular carriers money to extend fiber networks to rural cell sites when other funding should  be building the same fiber routes. The big funding for rural broadband seems likely to eliminate the need to fund fiber for most rural cell sites. It still makes great sense to provide subsidies to build towers and open rural cell sites because it’s nearly impossible to make a business case for a rural cell tower that only reaches a small number of households.

None of these solutions are going to be fast, so there is no quick fix in the immediate future. But the FCC ought to be able to figure out a way to get solid cellular signals to folks like the ones in Caddo Parish who really need it. But I despair if getting this right means getting the FCC maps right, something I’m doubtful will ever happen.

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