While 5G coverage
remains relatively sparse even in dense urban areas across the US
, the nation's top mobile network operators claim their efforts will focus on providing a strong, reliable, and blazing fast signal in rural environments not too far down the line. T-Mobile in particular is insisting its 5G rollout scheduled to begin this week
will create a brighter future for "everyone", including almost 60 million rural residents, as long as the "Un-carrier" manages to close its mega deal taking over Sprint
But until all that happens, T-Mo is one of three major wireless service providers coming under scrutiny for misrepresenting their 4G LTE coverage in, you guessed it, rural areas. The conclusions of a thorough FCC investigation
on the matter are pretty damning, but curiously enough, Commission Chairman Ajit Pai reportedly has no intention
to discipline the three carriers found guilty of gross coverage exaggerations in any way.
Verizon, US Cellular, and T-Mobile are in the wrong
Accusations against the nation's number one and three wireless carriers of rural foul play are certainly nothing new
, but this time, there's hard and independent evidence supporting some of the Rural Wireless Association's claims
from more than a year ago. The scale of the nationwide deception is perhaps bigger than we ever anticipated, though, as proven by nearly 25,000 drive tests conducted over 10,000 miles in 12 states, as well as almost 6,000 stationary speed tests at 42 distinct locations in nine states.
The FCC's Enforcement Bureau field agents found that the minimum download speed predicted in official maps submitted by the three aforementioned carriers was only achieved sporadically on the actual ground. Specifically, a measly 45 percent of measurements performed on US Cellular's 4G LTE network delivered the expected results, while T-Mobile and Verizon's 63.2 and 64.3 percent totals are sure better but far from a desired 100 percent.
In other words, T-Mobile and Verizon's 4G LTE networks provided lower than predicted speeds in 36.8 and 35.7 percent of cases respectively. Worse still, the FCC's field agents couldn't get a 4G LTE signal at all in no less than 38 percent of their US Cellular drive tests, as well as in 21.3 and 16.2 percent of instances on T-Mobile and Verizon respectively. That's... truly awful, and in case you're wondering, the Rural Wireless Association and other industry experts believe this general misrepresentation is intentional.
Its hidden goal may have been to prevent smaller carriers from securing government funding in the Mobility Fund Phase II auction designed to help precisely those areas currently lacking 4G LTE access. But all in all, the FCC's investigation did not find a "sufficiently clear violation" of the MF-II data collection requirements to warrant any "enforcement action."
$9 billion aid for rural 5G rollouts
While it might not be entirely clear if T-Mobile, Verizon, and US Cellular's 4G LTE coverage misrepresentations were indeed intentional and nefarious, it seems pretty obvious that mistakes like these shouldn't happen. Period. Unfortunately, the FCC is only taking vague "steps to make sure that coverage data the Commission and the public rely on is accurate" while terminating the Mobility Fund Phase II program.
That means no one will get federal support to provide 4G LTE service in "unserved areas", but an even larger $9 billion fund will be set up
to help carriers deploy "advanced 5G mobile wireless services in rural America." Once again, that sounds like an extremely noble goal, but in the absence of strict policies to ensure certain carriers will not continue to exaggerate their network development work, the aptly named 5G Fund could well exacerbate the problem rather than solving it.