Can You Hear Me Now? Are You Sure?

Carl Weinschenk

One of the key elements in the comparison of mobile carriers, whether for corporate or private use, is coverage. People tend to take coverage claims at face value, however. After all, how can they be checked?

Indeed, coverage is such an accepted constant that a clever ad campaign was built around it. A few years ago, Verizon had a guy (actor Paul Marcarelli) traipse around the country speaking into his device and asking, “Can you hear me now?” Sprint stole Marcarelli and built a campaign around “that was then/this is now,” the idea that the major carriers have achieved about the same high level of coverage. Subscribing decisions, the ads maintain, should be built around Sprint’s other advantages.

It turns out that coverage and the maps that document it are more complex issues. Yesterday, Connected Nation issued a press release that focused on differences between claimed and actual broadband coverage in 10 Ohio counties.

Chip Spann, the director of Engineering & Technical Services, led drive testing analysis by the Ohio Department of Transportation. The key takeaway is that coverage maps are not accurate:


“We found a substantial difference in the “perceived” coverage reported by the mobile carriers in these counties,” Spann said. “While their coverage maps are often based on predictive propagation models, we took the long and in-depth approach of drive testing every inch of those ten counties that we could physically access.”

It is unlikely that the situation in Ohio is unique. Indeed, it may be understating the problem. It is a relatively flat state, so coverage figures to be better and more uniform than in a mountainous state such as Montana. The study raises two questions: Do carriers use different modeling approaches? If so, are some carriers telling a truer story than others?

The topic of broadband maps has gotten the attention of Congress. The Rural Wireless Access Act of 2017 would mandate that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “collect up-to-date and accurate data on wireless broadband coverage across the United States and especially in rural areas,” according to a statement from Senator Gary Peters (D-MI). Peters was joined in introducing the bipartisan bill by Joe Manchin (D-WV), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Broadband maps are a sensitive issue because they are keys in assessing competition and, subsequently, setting policies and laws. North Carolina, for instance, has launched tools for measuring broadband speeds and enabling residents to report what they are receiving. State Scoop says that the goal is to prioritize projects and provide broadband where it is most needed.

It is likely that too much was assumed and not enough attention paid to broadband maps in the past. That will increase in the age of 5G. The technology will use high-frequency bandwidth and rely on a new generation of small cell antenna to supplement traditional cell towers.

The newness of the small cell technology, the fact that the deployment will happen unevenly, and the fragility of high-frequency signals will lead to a greater variance in 5G performance. It is important for this to be reflected in the maps. Put more simple: The LTE world is fairly stable and the maps apparently are a problem. That issue will get worse in the emerging 5G world if proper steps are not taken.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.


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