The nation's biggest mobile network operators have loudly voiced support for the FCC's broadband mapping project, which seeks to obtain clear and detailed information on the extent of cellular coverage in the US.
However, they don't want to actually go out and obtain real-world, on-the-ground tests of their networks to do so.
"The commission should not require carriers to 'supplement' their [mapping] submissions with 'on the ground' data such as drive test measurements," wrote Verizon in a recent filing to the FCC, noting that it only conducts "targeted" drive tests. "It would be impossible – and prohibitively expensive – for a carrier to drive test its entire network every six months."
The irony here, of course, is that Verizon spent billions of dollars over the course of almost a decade on its "test man" advertising campaign. The campaign featured actor Paul Marcarelli asking "Can you hear me now?" as he tested Verizon's network. (Marcarelli subsequently became a spokesman for Verizon's rival Sprint.)
Verizon isn't alone in challenging the suggestion that it should conduct widespread drive tests in order to map out its coverage areas.
"Drive tests and similar procedures are extremely expensive and burdensome to conduct, especially at the scale needed for a statistically significant sample of a nationwide network," T-Mobile wrote to the FCC. "A blanket requirement to perform regular on-the-ground testing will force providers to spend millions of dollars each year on tests, resources that would be better spent investing in our network and deployment in rural America. "
And AT&T provided some estimates around the effort.
"AT&T estimates that to drive test just 25% of the square kilometers of its nationwide 4G LTE coverage would cost approximately $45 million each year and that drive testing only 10% of its coverage would still cost as much as $18 million/year," the operator wrote. "Requiring that all carriers conduct such nationwide drive tests, especially on a regular basis, is simply too costly especially at a time when investment in 5G deployment is a top national priority."
Drive tests have been floated as just one possible point of data in the FCC's mapping effort. The agency has proposed creating broadband service maps via a variety of sources ranging from testing results from government entities, third parties and consumers themselves as well as drone inspections, estimates from operators, government mapping extrapolations based on operators' cell site locations, and even using the USPS' delivery fleet for network testing.
The project – required by Congress under the Broadband DATA Act – is an effort to improve the FCC's current broadband maps. Those maps, supplied by the operators themselves, have been widely criticized as inaccurate.
The maps will play a key role in the FCC's efforts to finance the construction of telecom networks in rural areas. After all, operators can't cross the digital divide unless they know where that divide actually is.
However, despite the mapping situation, the FCC's chairman has decided to move forward with the bulk of the agency's $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund with the FCC's existing maps. He has argued that funding will only be provided in areas where the lack of broadband isn't disputed. He has said the agency will wait for better maps to be created before moving forward with the FCC's $9 billion 5G Fund.
AT&T and Verizon have also rejected the suggestion that they provide 5G maps to the FCC.