The FCC's chairman proposed on Wednesday to distribute $9 billion over the next decade to carriers to build 5G networks in rural areas. But the agency is doing so only after finding out that Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular wildly overstated their 4G coverage.
Specifically, an FCC report released on Wednesday found that Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular provided inaccurate coverage maps about 40% of the time.
"The Commission dispatched Enforcement Bureau field agents to conduct speed tests of the Verizon, U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile networks," the FCC wrote in its 66-page report. "Commission field agents measured on-the-ground network performance in 12 states across six drive test routes, conducting a total of 24,649 tests and driving nearly 10,000 miles in the course of this testing."
And what were the results of those tests?
"Only 62.3% of staff drive tests achieved at least the minimum download speed predicted by the coverage maps -- with U.S. Cellular achieving that speed in only 45.0% of such tests, T-Mobile in 63.2% of tests, and Verizon in 64.3% of tests," according to the FCC. "Similarly, staff stationary tests showed that each provider achieved sufficient download speeds meeting the minimum cell edge probability in fewer than half of all test locations (20 of 42 locations). In addition, staff was unable to obtain any 4G LTE signal for 38% of drive tests on U.S. Cellular's network, 21.3% of drive tests on T-Mobile's network, and 16.2% of drive tests on Verizon's network, despite each provider reporting coverage in the relevant area."
Importantly, the FCC said that AT&T's coverage maps generally lined up with the results of the agency's testing -- an indication that such coverage maps can in fact provide accurate data.
However, Verizon and U.S. Cellular argued that they had warned the FCC that its measurement and testing process was flawed, but the agency went ahead with its study anyway.
Regardless, the FCC's chairman is moving forward with a plan that would essentially scrap the whole issue and start again, using 5G instead of 4G. And FCC officials said Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular would face no fines or penalties for their inaccurate maps.
A Mobility Fund to bridge the divide
At the heart of the issue is the FCC's desire to cross the "digital divide" and provide Internet services to underserved or unconnected areas of the US. That was the driving force behind the FCC's Mobility Fund program, which provided money to wireless network operators to help them build networks in rural areas. Operators argue such funding is essential due to the expense involved in building networks in such areas and the diminutive revenues available from users in those areas.
The money for the program comes from Americans who already pay for telecommunications services -- every month, operators add a few extra cents to customers' telecom bills for the Universal Service Fund (USF). Money put into the USF goes into programs like the Mobility Fund.
And while government money for rural Internet may be a laudable goal, the mechanics of reaching it are challenging at best.
The first step in crossing the digital divide is figuring out where that divide actually is -- meaning, what parts of the country are underserved or completely unconnected. That's where the FCC's "Form 477" comes in. Basically, the FCC asked companies like Verizon and T-Mobile to fill out Form 477 with their coverage maps in rural areas. That way the agency would know where they already offered coverage so that it could use Mobility Fund money to improve coverage elsewhere.
But in recent years a number of state agencies, companies and trade groups began to complain that the coverage maps the FCC was using for the Mobility Fund and other programs -- maps derived from Form 477 data -- were not accurate. For example, Panhandle Telecommunication Systems said it spent almost $1 million on network testing to show that Verizon did not provide coverage in the areas it claimed. Others, including Smith Bagley (operating as Cellular One) and the Vermont Department of Public Service, reported similar complaints.
The issue is critical to smaller wireless operators hoping to get Mobility Fund money.
These complaints eventually pushed the FCC to open an investigation into the issue. That study, launched late last year, began with the FCC requesting information directly from the likes of Sprint, AT&T and Verizon "in order to understand providers' mapping processes," and then later included the FCC issuing subpoenas to Verizon and U.S. Cellular specifically over exactly how they calculated their wireless coverage areas.
Can you hear me now?
After discussions with all the carriers, the FCC conducted its own coverage tests, which included detailed analyses of everything from uplink channels to "reference signal received power" (RSRP).
"Our analysis and speed tests suggest that the submitted MF-II coverage maps did not match actual coverage in many instances," the agency concluded.
Importantly, the agency said AT&T provided mostly accurate maps. "The fact that AT&T was able to submit coverage data that appear to more accurately reflect MF-II coverage requirements raises questions about why other providers did not do so," the agency noted.
Nonetheless, Verizon, in a statement to Light Reading, argued that the FCC used outdated mapping calculations in its study. "Our company is not responsible for the agency's Mobility Fund mapping problem," Verizon stated in response to the FCC's report. "The industry told the FCC more than two years ago how to build a coverage map that better aligns with real-world experiences. For policy reasons, the FCC rejected the industry's consensus proposal in favor of a more expansive definition of coverage. Verizon simply followed the FCC's instructions."
Verizon added that it would "work with the FCC's staff on ways to improve the mapping processes going forward."
U.S. Cellular made a similar argument: "We have said all along that the parameters adopted by the Commission for the submittal of broadband coverage maps would result in overstated coverage, so the conclusions in the staff report come as no surprise to us," the company said in a statement provided to Light Reading. "U.S. Cellular faithfully implemented the FCC's requirements in the development of the coverage maps that it submitted, but we recognize, as does the FCC, that better and more accurate maps are necessary for dispersing finite government funding for broadband deployment."
Added U.S. Cellular: "With the Chairman's exciting announcement of the creation of a $9 billion 5G fund it will be vitally important that we identify precisely the rural portion of America that will need this funding the most."
T-Mobile said only that "we stand behind our network coverage and all of our maps, but agree with the FCC that there is an opportunity to improve their procedures for collection of broadband coverage data for the Mobility Fund maps. We look forward to working with them and Congress to revamp the process."
Concluded the FCC in its report: "Mobile providers are legally responsible for submitting accurate and reliable coverage maps to the Commission. It is incumbent upon mobile providers to accurately model their networks, to test and retest these models, and to improve continually the accuracy of their projections so that their submissions can be confidently relied upon by the Commission."
Meet the 5G Fund, the new Mobility Fund
Partly as a result of the FCC's findings, the agency's chairman proposed to completely scrap the Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) program. That program was to have used maps derived from Form 477 data to allocate up to $4.5 billion over ten years for 4G LTE networks in rural areas.
Instead, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to replace MF-II with a new "5G Fund." The 5G Fund would dole out twice as much money -- $9 billion -- over the same amount of time to carriers to help them build out 5G networks in rural areas. FCC officials said the funds would continue to come from USF money, and that the increased amount stemmed from the FCC's financial frugality.
Pai also proposed setting aside at least $1 billion specifically for deployments "facilitating precision agriculture needs," which is a favorite topic of Pai's.
However, the 5G Fund continues to face the same problems that the MF-II effort did. Agency officials said they don't yet have a way to allocate the funds -- meaning that they will still have to figure out a way to give money to carriers to build networks only where they are needed. Officials explained that, because the effort is focused on 5G technology, they won't have to worry about where 4G is.
FCC officials added that, other than requiring carriers to use the 5G NR technical specification, they don't yet have any other 5G parameters for the program in terms of network speed or performance. That's noteworthy considering today's 5G networks can provide speeds anywhere between 2 Gbit/s and 60 Mbit/s. Moreover, some of today's 4G networks could outperform some 5G networks given the proper application of spectrum and network technologies.
The officials said such details would be opened up to comments and suggestions during its proceeding on the matter.
There is one thing that the FCC does plan to do with the 5G Fund: Agency officials said the FCC would conduct its own tests of 5G networks built with money from the fund, in order to ensure it's actually providing service where carriers say it is.