T-Mobile Aims to Close Map Gap on Its Own

T-Mobile is trying to ditch its reputation of having poor coverage outside of the major cities, and it's launching what it claims is the industry's only crowd-sourced and customer-verified coverage maps to prove it.

Coverage maps have long been the basis of mobile operators' marketing materials, as well as a way for potential customers to confirm coverage in their area before signing up. Verizon Wireless stakes much of its reputation on its nationwide LTE coverage and made maps its weapon of choice in 2009 when it launched its "there's a map for that" campaign (over which AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) later sued, calling it misleading). (See Verizon's 4G Strength Keeps It Above the Fray and AT&T & Verizon End Map Scrap.)

Maps have also been used as a way to slam T-Mobile US Inc. , which has traditionally lacked the low-band spectrum to compete in the more rural parts of the US. (See T-Mobile Spends $2.4B on Verizon Spectrum and T-Mobile: Going Bananas for Low-Band .)

The self-proclaimed uncarrier won't be out-mapped any more and it's building its own T-Mobile Next-Gen Network Map to show what it says is the real picture. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray explains in a blog post that traditional carrier maps are based on predictive coverage estimations, which are simply that -- estimations. Its new maps will be drawn based on actual customer usage in "near real-time."

T-Mobile is combining 200 million customer usage data points from those customers who opt-in to provide it with additional customer usage data from third-parties such as Inrix and others. The data will be updated twice monthly and will also include speed test data showing average download speeds during the past 90 days.

For more on the mobile network wars in the US, visit the dedicated 4G LTE content channel here on Light Reading.

Why this matters
Wireless operators tend to adopt the maps and metrics that make themselves look the best. You'll remember that Verizon touts the RootMetrics report that rated it the best network, while T-Mobile has talked up the fact that OpenSignal found it to be the fastest LTE and AT&T is now claiming to have the strongest LTE signal (without offering a real definition or source). (See AT&T Sends Strong Signal in New Ads, Verizon Still Best Network, RootMetrics Finds and OpenSignal: T-Mobile's LTE Is Fastest.)

T-Mobile's new maps could amount to just another way of looking at the mobile landscape in the US, though using a tool over which it has much more control compared with third-party maps from companies such as Mosaik Solutions LLC and RootMetrics.

However, the fact that its maps are updated every two weeks should make them a useful tool for potential new customers. With the constant pace of change in the wireless industry through the addition of small cells, new spectrum and network upgrades, the landscape changes quickly: Static maps will become outdated at an increasingly fast pace.

T-Mobile, for its part, says it will reach 300 PoPs, up from 265 today, by the end of the year and is planning to deploy new spectrum in rural areas, as well as upgrade its network in multiple cities across the US. (See Q&A: The Castle in T-Mobile's LTE Network .)

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MordyK 4/6/2015 | 3:29:10 PM
Re: the maps don't lie I thought that was a great idea when it came out and I actally tried it, but the experience was actually pretty difficult. Seeing how we use our phones and the number asociated with it, any usage patterns off a mobile device means in effect terminating your existing service and shfting it to the new carrier, and if the new carriers service left you unstisfied you have to go back and transfer the service back.

A dedicated device to carry along with you that monitors and compares the networks as you go about your day requires zero hassle beyond teh additional device.

AN alternative would be to load an app that - if possible - listens to and monitors the testing network while you're still receiving service from your current network can solve the same isue, although I'm not sure if the API's for that capability are available.

There's an app that claims to do it (can't recall the name) although i'm not sure if its based on the collected data or inferred data. WHen I tried T-Mobile a year ago I used the app and it wasn't reliably representing my actual experience with a test device, which leads me to believe its inferred data and useless.
sarahthomas1011 4/6/2015 | 2:59:38 PM
Re: the maps don't lie I've always thought that would be a great idea -- like a car test drive, but longer. Sprint and T-Mobile both do offer programs like this. Sprint gave customers 30-days with a money back guarantee after T-Mobile announced a seven-day trial run last June: http://www.lightreading.com/mobile/devices-smartphones/pics-sprints-day-at-the-broadcast-museum/d/d-id/709580
MordyK 4/6/2015 | 2:32:39 PM
Re: the maps don't lie If they're confident in their network, they should consider creating a device program for potential new customers which can be carried for a week, and predict how likely you are to be satisfied with their service based on their service availability for the individuals usage patterns.
pcharles09 3/30/2015 | 7:49:08 PM
Re: the maps don't lie @Mitch,

I guess they're hoping it's not as bad as consumers think. Those that are willing to take a chance could also turn out to provide great testimonials.
Mitch Wagner 3/30/2015 | 3:42:17 PM
Re: the maps don't lie These maps serve as a tool for decreasing customer dissatisfaction. Customers who finds their areas aren't covered will simply not sign up with T-Mobile. It's a loss of short-term revenue, but it prevents a dissatisfied customer later. 
sarahthomas1011 3/30/2015 | 1:43:44 PM
Re: the maps don't lie I agree that customer anecdotes influence decisions the most, i.e. asking a coworker or neighbor how they service is, but I think checking the maps would be a last stop before commiting. If the carrier itself is showing/telling you coverage is bad in your area, I think that's reason enough not to choose it.
mendyk 3/30/2015 | 1:20:46 PM
Re: the maps don't lie Some customers may base their subscription decisions on coverage maps. More will still use price and recommendations from friends first. TMUS is in good shape on price, but it has a long way to go on the recommend front.
sarahthomas1011 3/30/2015 | 12:10:51 PM
the maps don't lie This could easily backfire on T-Mobile, something Ray tells CNet he is prepared for, provided they are accurately and completely updated. The fact is, regardless of how the map data is collected, there are some (many?) areas T-Mobile doesn't yet have good coverage. Potential customers using the map will find that out pretty quickly.
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