Carrier coverage claims: What does covering “X-percentage” of Americans really mean?

When it comes to wireless service, there is a difference between coverage, and well, coverage. If there is any perceived weak point in the US wireless infrastructure, it could be argued that it is actual physical coverage, the ability to pick-up a carrier signal anywhere, anytime.

The United States is a large country, and believe it or not, the vast majority of the land mass is not developed. That makes providing any type of service that requires some type of infrastructure, wired or wireless, is a daunting task. That is why providers use carefully parsed marketing language like “service to over 95% of Americans,” versus claiming, “We cover 95% of the country.”

It is fairly self-explanatory that the physical gaps we see in a coverage map are areas of low, or zero, population density, even in the immediate areas outside some western cities. When it comes to AT&T and Verizon, a less relevant explanation for some gaps would be areas where those carriers do not have their own network. In those few instances, smaller competitive carriers are in operation.

The physical footprint is the next coverage battleground

Given the incumbent nature of AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks, going back to the original A-Side and B-Side 800MHz systems that were first built decades ago, it is easy to accept claims of having 97% or 99% of Americans covered by their networks. After all, some of that infrastructure pre-dates the first Motorola prototypes of the 1970s.

What about T-Mobile and Sprint? Everyone knows that these two carriers have younger and physically smaller networks. Yet T-Mobile, the United States’ third or fourth largest of big four carriers (depending on how you count), claims an overall network reach that covers 96% of the population. What gives? Well, T-Mobile is talking about its entire network, so that includes its LTE service all the way down to more rural areas that might still register as GPRS on a mobile device. T-Mobile is not lying about its statistic, but the reality is that percentages are rapidly becoming more meaningless in terms of wireless coverage in the United States. T-Mobile is also aggressively converting its legacy systems to LTE, and it has done a remarkable job in just two years. The conversion of its 700MHz licenses will give T-Mobile a substantially more robust physical footprint.

Sprint recently announced a physical build-out that may involve as many as 20,000 new cell sites. That too will dramatically increase its physical footprint, other network issues notwithstanding.

Project: Make your own carrier

Let’s pretend for a moment that you have some spectrum, and want to launch your own wireless carrier. As a new business however, you need to get the biggest bang for the buck. Your goal: create a network that within its first 6 months covers 50% of all Americans. What would that network look like? The answer may surprise you. As you can see from the adjacent map, you need only to devote the majority of your resources to California, Florida, and the northeast. Imagine that, with just a handful of build-outs in a few dozen counties around the US, you could claim a network that covers “50% of Americans” regardless of actual physical coverage.

This is where the coverage argument between carriers, and fans of carriers comes into play, and it also shows how mundane the points are becoming. We are rapidly approaching a point where claiming to cover a percentage of the population does not mean anything. Half the population of the United States lives in less than 150 counties out of more than 3,000.

It will take time to reduce the gaps

Confronting that reality, it is easy to see why the future will be less about who is covered, but rather where they are covered. This is where AT&T and Verizon currently have the advantage. The original 800MHz network licenses are still in use to this day, and have comparable coverage and building penetration propagation as the 700MHz block that was auctioned off in 2008.

T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s networks (including their respective predecessors) are anchored on what is called PCS spectrum, 1900MHz, auctioned in the mid-1990s, and rapidly built out in population centers and along transportation routes. That explains why the two carriers’ coverage maps look so similar at first glance, and trace the interstate routes all over the country. Underpinning that coverage, things have changed a little, both carriers have since acquired lower band spectrum through acquisitions and trades, but on the whole, the PCS spectrum of both carriers, and the AWS spectrum (1700MHz) that T-Mobile also uses, is less efficient at penetrating buildings or offering uniform coverage over a particular geographic area.

That is why the 600MHz spectrum auctions to be held next year are so important to carriers like T-Mobile and Sprint. It also explains why Sprint opted out of the recent AWS-3 spectrum auction, keeping its acorns for 2016. In theory, winners of these licenses will be able to cover a geographically wider space compared to the higher-frequencies (not accounting for power levels or other RF factors).

Even with the spectrum auction next year, it will be several years before any of the winning providers are able to build out commercial service. The same holds true for the recently completed AWS-3 auction. Existing license holders have to vacate the spectrum.

The maps will still look largely the same – for now

Even as more and more spectrum is allocated to mobile providers to enable connectivity on an even more massive scale, it is a safe bet that large swaths of a carrier’s coverage map will remain largely unchanged, at least for the foreseeable future.

However, as the communication standards advance, the demands of a completely connected world will increase. Soon everything from our homes, automated appliances and equipment, cars, and more, will need a signal. We may yet see a map that is completely covered, connecting everything, everywhere, but for now, it's all percentages.

references: Business Insider and Deutsche Telekom (PDF)



1. Sauce5 unregistered

We are paying $3,700 a year on service from Verizon. I hope T Mobile gets stronger/faster coverage soon, because this is just getting ridiculous.

2. zunaidahmed

Posts: 1183; Member since: Dec 24, 2011

What the XXXXing plan are you guys on? That insane,lol. I went on a family plan with my friends and only pay $10 for unlimited talk text and 2.5 GB of LTE data, I live in Chicago so coverage is not a problem except at home....But the wifi calling and texting makes up for it.

4. arch_angel

Posts: 1651; Member since: Feb 20, 2015

the main line has a way higher price than the added on ones. with att the add on lines cost 15$ for unlimited talk and text with 3gb of data we have 4 added lines and our monthly price is 175 the main phone line cost 115$ crazy right you're lucky your friend let you on his family plan and only makes you pay the monthly fee for the added line. our yearly price is 2,100$ and its slowly going down. att prices are getting better because last year our month price was 215$ for the same plan that we currently have. Sauce5's year price is insane though wonder what data plan he has.

17. zunaidahmed

Posts: 1183; Member since: Dec 24, 2011

The first four lines for 100, and then 10 for extra lines

5. Sauce5 unregistered

8 gigs shared LTE data plan, 4 smartphone lines. They won't even lower our bill... =( $300ish a month

8. bfuller2006

Posts: 85; Member since: Oct 31, 2011

Hmmm call them back also have them do an account analysis b/c that does sound like a lot however see what can be done.

12. TheRequiem

Posts: 245; Member since: Mar 23, 2012

Go to Sprint for the cut your bill in half promotion, 4 lines with 20gigs of shared data is around $200 excluding discounts or installment billing discount's, which can probably be at least $50 in saving's if you go that route.

19. jordan6k9

Posts: 1; Member since: Apr 02, 2015

That would also be cutting your service in half, just take a look at the two coverage maps. with cellular service, you get exactly what you pay for.

13. JC557

Posts: 1918; Member since: Dec 07, 2011

Ouch, we have a family plan of 4 and two on unlimited data w/ the other 2 on multimedia phones. Per month it's $175 after employee discount (not verizon). If we add 2 more smart phones it'll come out to $220 (roughly as my parents may want a smartphone w. their own data) It's time to talk to CS and work something out if T-mobile isn't an option yet.

14. Sauce5 unregistered

Quick question, can a Verizon phone work on T Mobile since, in essence, their phones are already unlocked?

15. Jason78

Posts: 281; Member since: Apr 10, 2013

Yes, if the phone is unlocked and has the correct GSM bands. I have a 5 line account with Cricket. Unlimited Talk / Text 2.5 GB data per line for $100. My mother is using a Verizon Droid Maxx. The Droid doesn't have the correct LTE band but it GSM and HSPDA+ works.

16. JC557

Posts: 1918; Member since: Dec 07, 2011

As stated by another poster, you won't get LTE but you will get HSPA+ which is still really fast. There's also the problem of T-Mobile using specific bands that aren't found on AT&T and Verizon LTE phones. I think it's 1700MHz. To clear up any confusion from my earlier post, I'm on Verizon as T-Mobile didn't cut it when I was racing in upstate NY and NH.

3. arch_angel

Posts: 1651; Member since: Feb 20, 2015

t mobile has the fastest 4g lte speeds crazy right i wish they had better coverage but sadly where i live t mobile only gets 2g so im stuck with att.

10. gersont1000

Posts: 473; Member since: Mar 13, 2012

Wow, that's a lot for four lines. I have 8 lines on my T-Mobile account and pay about $420 a month. That includes unlimited talk and text (including international calling to landlines and text for all lines), 4 lines with unlimited LTE data, one with 4.5GB LTE, the rest have the free 2.5GB LTE which will remain as per the last Uncarrier event announcement. That price also includes about $160 on equipment installment plans for 7 phones and JUMP/insurance on two of them, so my plan cost will go down when I finish paying off some phones. I love T-Mobile!

11. ajac09

Posts: 1482; Member since: Sep 30, 2009

Tmobile adding lte in my area like crazy but no where near the coverage. I rather have coverage then fast LTE speeds. I can just connect to wifi at 5ghz and get 80= at home so not really that important to me.

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