FCC Reports on Poor Rural 4G Coverage

The FCC released a report in January that shows that the cellular networks of the major carriers underperform in rural America. This is no news to anybody who lives and works in a rural county. The tests allowed the FCC to conclude that the national coverage maps for 4G LTE are largely fiction in rural America.

The FCC conducted 25,000 tests in twelve states to verify the coverage maps of Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. The majority of tests were done in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont, Alabama and Montana. Speeds were tested from both stationary locations and in a moving vehicle. AT&T and Sprint weren’t tested because the maps they provided to the FCC showed only the combined upload and download speeds – something that is meaningless to test. The other three carriers reported what they claimed were actual upload and download speeds, shown separately.

The FCC undertook the testing in response to numerous complaints filed in the FCC’s docket for the Mobility Fund Phase II grants. The intention of this fund was to improve 4G coverage in rural areas with little or no cellular coverage. Smaller cellular carriers and the public complained to the FCC that the cellular data coverage claimed by the large cellular carriers was overstated. Small cellular carriers worried that the overstatements would stop them from asking for funding for areas that need upgrading. Local governments were worried that the overstated coverage meant that their areas wouldn’t see upgrades and they’d be doomed for another decade with poor cellular coverage.

The tests were conducted in areas where the carrier maps showed cellular data coverage. The results of the testing were rather bleak. 16% of all calls tried on Verizon were unable to make a data connection. The failures to connect were 23% on T-Mobile and 38% on US Cellular.

Overall, the three carriers met the FCC’s minimum requirement of 5 Mbps download for 4G only 62% of the time. That was 64% on Verizon, 63% on T-Mobile and only 45% for US Cellular. However, even within those reported results, the testers said that they experienced intermittent dropped calls on all three networks.

The FCC responded to these tests by revamping the reporting of cellular data speeds in the future, asking for far more granular speed data by location. The FCC also convened a group of experts to recommend to the FCC how to better test cellular speeds. Finally, the FCC issued an Enforcement Advisory on the accuracy of the cellular data on form 477. That’s a step short of issuing fines and likely will have little impact on the carriers. It doesn’t appear that any of them have pared back their national coverage maps that still claim coverage across most of rural America.

There are significant real-life implications of overstated cellular coverage maps. Just like with the RDOF grant program that will rely on faulty maps of landline broadband, poor maps of cellular coverage mean that many areas with overstated cellular coverage won’t be eligible for federal grants to help fix the problem.

The big downside is that many rural households have no 4G LTE coverage, or at best have slow and intermittent 4G data available. These are often the same areas where landline broadband is slow or non-existent. As hard as it is to live without good cellular coverage or good landline broadband, homes without both are cut off from the rest of the world. To make matters worse, there is still 3G coverage in a lot of rural America and all of the carrirs have plans to cut that dead over the next few years.

The FCC has revamped the Mobility Fund II grant program by doubling the amount of funding to $9 billion and renaming it as the 5G Fund. That’s a silly name because the goal of the program is to bring at least minimal 4G coverage to rural areas, not 5G. Remember that the grant program was originally aimed only at areas that showed no coverage by the carriers. Ideally the FCC would also  direct funding to the many areas where the carriers were lying about their coverage – but It’s doubtful that they have any meaningful maps of real 4G coverage.

The Millimeter Wave Auctions

The FCC will soon hold the auction for two bands of millimeter wave spectrum. The auction for the 28 GHz spectrum, referred to as Auction 101, will begin on November 14 and will offer 3,072 licenses in the 27.5 to 28.35 GHz band. The auction for 24 GHz, referred to as Auction 102, will follow at the end of Auction 101 and will offer 2,909 licenses in the 24.25 to 24.45 GHz and the 24.75 to 25.25 GHz bands.

This is the spectrum that will support 5G high-bandwidth products. The most unusual aspect of this auction is that the FCC is offering much wider channels than ever before, making the spectrum particularly useful for broadband deployment and also for the frequency slicing needed to serve multiple customers. The Auction 101 includes two blocks of 425 MHz and is being auctioned by County. Auction 102 will include seven blocks of 100 MHz and will be auctioned by Partial Economic Areas (PEA). PEAs divide the country into 416 zones, grouped by economic interest. They vary from the gigantic PEA that encompasses all of the New York City and the surrounding areas in Connecticut and New Jersey to PEAs that are almost entirely rural.

That means that every part of the country could see as many as seven different license holders, assuming that somebody pursues all of the spectrum. It’s likely, though, that there will be rural areas where nobody buys the spectrum. It will be interesting to look at the maps when the auctions are done.

This is the spectrum that can be used to support the fixed wireless broadband like Verizon is now deploying from poles. The spectrum has the capability of delivering big bandwidth, but for relatively short distances of 1,000 feet or more. The spectrum can also be used as a focused beam to deliver several gigabits of bandwidth for a mile to a single point, such as what Webpass is currently doing to serve downtown high-rise apartment buildings.

The industry consensus is that this spectrum will find limited use in rural areas for now since it’s hard, with existing technology, to deploy a 5G transmitter site that might only reach a few potential customers.

The FCC has released the names of the companies that will be bidding in the auction. As expected the big cellular companies are there and AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are bidding. Absent is Sprint, but the speculation is that they are relying on the merger with T-Mobile and have elected to sit out the auction.

The big telcos are also in the auctions with AT&T, Verizon, Frontier and Windstream all participating. Absent is CenturyLink, which further strengthens the belief that they are no longer pursuing residential broadband.

The only cable company of any size in the auction is Cox Communications. The other big companies like Comcast, Charter, Altice and many others are sitting out the auction. It doesn’t make sense for a cable company to deploy the spectrum where they are already the incumbent broadband provider. Wireless technology for end users would complete directly with their own networks. Since Cox is privately held it’s hard to know their plans, but one use of the spectrum would be to expand in the areas surrounding their current footprint or to move into new markets. It’s costly to expand their hybrid-fiber networks and 5G wireless might be a cheaper way to move into new markets.

There are some rural companies that are bidding for spectrum. It’s hard to know if the rural telcos and cooperatives on the list want to use the spectrum to enhance broadband in their own footprint or if they want to use the spectrum to expand into larger nearby markets. One of the most interesting companies taking part in both auctions is US Cellular. They are the fifth largest cellular company after the big four and serve mostly rural markets. They’ve already made public announcements about upgrading to the most current version of 4G LTE and it will be interesting to see how they use this spectrum.