FCC Investigation finds that three wireless network operators exaggerated coverage maps for rural areas:
In its MOBILITY FUND PHASE II -COVERAGE MAPS INVESTIGATION report, the FCC concluded that: “that 4G-LTE coverage maps submitted by Verizon, U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile overstated their coverage and thus were not accurate reflections of actual coverage.”
As part of the Mobility Fund Phase II, mobile network providers were given U.S. federal support for deploying 4G-LTE services to rural and underserved areas. That initiative was supposed to bridge the digital divide between the served and underserved U.S. population. As part of the agreement, the mobile providers were obliged to provide accurate coverage maps to ensure the federal government cash they were receiving was being spent to provide better coverage to their under-served and unserved customers.
The FCC said that U.S. mobile network providers are responsible for submitting accurate coverage maps in accordance with the Commission’s rules and orders. In response to these concerns and based upon a preliminary FCC staff review of the challenger data, the Commission launched an investigation into whether one or more major mobile network providers violated the requirements of the one-time collection of coverage data.
The investigation was led by the Rural Broadband Auctions Task Force in coordination with the Office of Economics and Analytics, Enforcement Bureau, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Wireline Competition Bureau, and the Office of Engineering and Technology. FCC staff initially requested information directly from several providers in order to understand providers’ mapping processes, and later issued subpoenas to Verizon and U.S. Cellular.
This FCC investigation discovered that the MF-II coverage maps submitted by Verizon, U.S. Cellular, and T-Mobile likely overstated each provider’s actual coverage and did not reflect on-the-ground performance in many instances.
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. 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).
In addition, FCC 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.
In other words, these three mobile network operators were not spending federal money as promised. Worse, is that they were effectively lying to the FCC and their subscribers (or potential subscribers) in the geographical areas with inaccurate coverage maps.
Astonishingly, the FCC does not currently have any plans to punish (via fine or reduce future subsidies) these three mobile operators. Yet the FCC said that “inaccurate data jeopardize the ability of the Commission to focus our limited universal service funds on the unserved areas that need the most support.”
Instead of punishment, the FCC Rural Broadband Auctions Task Force made the following recommendations:
First, the Commission should terminate the MF-II Challenge Process. The MF-II coverage maps submitted by several providers are not a sufficiently reliable or accurate basis upon which to complete the challenge process as it was designed. The MF-II Challenge Process was designed to resolve coverage disputes regarding generally reliable maps; it was not designed to correct generally overstated coverage maps. 7.
Second, the Commission should release an Enforcement Advisory on broadband deployment data submissions, including a detailing of the penalties associated with filings that violate federal law, both for the continuing FCC Form 477 filings and the new Digital Opportunity Data Collection.
Editor’s Note: The Commission relies upon coverage maps submitted by providers in accordance with data collection rules and specifications adopted through notice and comment rulemakings. For almost two decades, the Commission has relied on FCC Form 477 to collect data on mobile services.
Overstating mobile broadband coverage misleads the public and can misallocate our limited universal service funds, and thus it must be met with meaningful consequences.
Third, the Commission should analyze and verify the technical mapping data submitted in the most recent Form 477 filings of Verizon, U.S. Cellular, and T-Mobile to determine whether they meet the Form 477 requirements.
Fourth, the Commission should adopt policies, procedures, and standards in the Digital Opportunity Data Collection rulemaking and elsewhere that allow for submission, verification, and timely publication of mobile broadband coverage data. Mobile broadband coverage data specifications should include, among other parameters, minimum reference signal received power (RSRP) and/or minimum downlink and uplink speeds, standard cell loading factors and cell edge coverage probabilities, maximum terrain and clutter bin sizes, and standard fading statistics. Providers should be required to submit actual on-the-ground evidence of network performance (e.g., speed test measurement samplings, including targeted drive test and stationary test data) that validate the propagation model used to generate the coverage maps. The Commission should consider requiring that providers assume the minimum values for any additional parameters that would be necessary to accurately determine the area where a handset should achieve download and upload speeds no less than the minimum throughput requirement for any modeling that includes such a requirement.
In a call with reporters, a senior FCC official said that commission staff was unable to determine whether the carriers’ exaggerations were deliberate. The official said that the investigation did not establish a clear violation of a specific rule. The FCC official said that maps submitted by carriers were based on industry-standard propagation models and that the FCC’s own tests made it clear that those industry models do not reflect on-the-ground experience.
U.S. Cellular said it had warned that the FCC’s directions for the coverage maps would result in overstated coverage, and said the staff report comes as “no surprise.”
The company “faithfully implemented” the FCC’s requirements for the coverage maps it submitted but recognizes “better and more accurate maps are necessary,” said Grant Spellmeyer, vice president of federal affairs and public policy for the carrier.
FCC to Launch $9 billion 5G Fund for Rural America:
In a related press release, the FCC will create a new fund which will make $9 billion available to ensure 5G connectivity reaches underserved areas that have been largely neglected by the large nationwide U.S. wireless operators.
“5G has the potential to bring many benefits to American consumers and businesses, including wireless networks that are more responsive, more secure, and up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE networks,” said Chairman Pai in the aforementioned press release. He added:
“We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will. In order to do that, the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow. Moreover, America’s farms and ranches have unique wireless connectivity needs, as I’ve seen across the country. That’s why I will move forward as quickly as possible to establish a 5G Fund that would bring next-generation 5G services to rural areas and would reserve some of that funding for 5G networks that promote precision agriculture. We must ensure that 5G narrows rather than widens the digital divide and that rural Americans receive the benefits that come from wireless innovation.”
The new 5G Fund would replace the planned Mobility Fund Phase II, which would have provided federal support for 4G LTE service in unserved areas. Pursuant to the Mobility Fund Phase II rules, wireless providers were required to submit 4G LTE coverage data in order to help the Commission target federal subsidies to unserved parts of the country.
The smaller, rural wireless network providers (some of whom use Huawei gear) have long complained the nationwide, larger wireless operators were exaggerating coverage maps. These coverage maps helped the FCC determine who should get a slice of the $4.5 billion reserved for the Mobility Fund Phase II fund.
Questions to Ponder:
What is being done to make sure the same abuses do not reoccur in the new 5G Fund for Rural America?
Can these three telco exaggerators be trusted to appropriately spend their allocation of the $9 billion moving forward?
Is FCC enforcement a thing of the past, now that net neutrality is gone?
Michael Copps, Former FCC Commissioner and Common Cause Special Adviser had this to say:
“With its latest announcement to deploy 5G in rural America, the FCC continues its smoke and mirrors show to cover up the poor state of broadband deployment in the nation.
“First, many parts of the country – both urban and rural – lack 4G or any type of wireless connectivity at all. The FCC has systematically failed to address the wireless broadband needs of many communities but chooses to put the cart before the horse with another announcement on 5G.
“Second, the FCC buries the real story in its announcement – wireless carriers have greatly exaggerated their coverage maps, helping paint an inaccurate picture of who has access to broadband. The FCC has known the maps have been bad for quite some time but chose to do nothing. Even with its latest findings that carriers lied about coverage maps, the FCC has not leveled any fines or held the companies accountable in any way. This points to a larger problem regarding the FCC’s failure to provide the public with granular and accurate broadband maps. If we can’t even determine who does and does not have access to broadband, we can’t sufficiently close the digital divide.
Third, the agency is seemingly not providing any new funding to deploy 5G. Rather, it is terminating the current funding mechanism to deploy 4G only to open a new one for 5G. Moving a pot of money around shows that the FCC lacks a clear strategy and vision to deploy 5G nationwide. It is these kinds of zig-zags and diversions on broadband that make our country such an outlier when it comes to broadband penetration.”
The FCC voted to propose opening up even more spectrum for 5G, allowing sharing of spectrum now used for weather forecasting by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was a unanimous decision to take the first step toward reallocating spectrum for shared use between those federal users and non-federal flexible-use wireless.
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) approved at Thursday’s (May 9, 2019) FCC open meeting proposes to reallocate that spectrum (1675-1680 MHz) on a co-primary basis, meaning both weather forecasting and wireless will have equal stature. The band can be used for terrestrial fixed and mobile (except aeronautical mobile) on a shared basis, with appropriate technical rules to protect each.
The FCC is also seeking comment on other ways the NOAA weather data can be delivered to those now receiving it via earth stations using the 1675-1680 MHz band. In particular, the Commission seeks comment on how to implement a sharing framework that would create opportunities for commercial operations in this band while also protecting incumbent federal users. Finally, the Commission asks about possible alternative methods of providing access to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather data to other non-federal users that currently receive such data via earth stations they operate in this band.
Wireless broadband is a critical component of economic growth, job creation, public safety, and global competitiveness, and the demand for spectrum continues to increase. As shown by today’s action, the Commission is continuing to work to identify and make available additional spectrum to meet the growing demand.
“Today, the FCC joined together to take an important step to free up vital mid-band spectrum and help secure American digital superiority in 5G,” said Doug Smith, CEO of Ligado Networks, which had sought the move as part of its mid-band 5G strategy, which will require 40 MHz of spectrum. “Under chairman Pai’s leadership, this FCC is working hard to identify opportunities to make mid-band spectrum available, and the NPRM on 1675–1680 MHz will help deliver on the promise of developing and deploying 5G in the U.S. as soon as possible. We applaud the Commissioners’ commitment to make our nation first in next-generation technologies through a free market approach that encourages private sector investment and innovation.”
“The FCC’s action today proposing to reallocate the 1675–1680 MHz band for shared federal and non-federal commercial use is another positive step in the effort to make available more mid-band spectrum for private sector use,” said Free State Foundation president Randolph May. “It should not go unremarked that the FCC’s action today is an important ‘infrastructure’ measure — just as much as a federal grant to build a highway or road — because the availability of spectrum, especially mid-band spectrum, is necessary to support the investment in transmitters, small antennas, tower structures, terrestrial links, and so forth that will comprise the guts of 5G network infrastructure.”
Public Knowledge also praised the move: “Consumer demand for wireless services continues to grow, and spectrum that can easily be cleared and used for mobile use has been exhausted,” said PK senior policy counsel Phillip Berenbroick. “Today’s proposal to permit sharing of the 1675-1680 MHz band correctly recognizes the need to more efficiently use scarce spectrum resources to meet this consumer demand, while also ensuring federal users can accomplish their missions. Public Knowledge supports the NPRM and looks forward to weighing in on the details of the 1675-1680 MHz band plan.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted rules to clear spectrum in the 95 GHz to 3 TeraHz frequencies for experimental use in order to ecnourage technological breakthroughs in communications. It might even set the stage for 6G and beyond. The FCC will issue experimental licenses for up to 10 years and open 21.2 GHz of spectrum in that range for testing unlicensed devices.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai invited NYU Wireless Professor Ted Rappaport, who was instrumental in conducting ground-breaking millimeter wave research, to present his institution’s findings thus far on the opportunities afforded by the spectrum bands above 95 GHz, where “science fiction will become reality,” Rappaport told the commission.
The applications that become possible at these higher frequencies are kind of mind-blowing, he said. With so much bandwidth and wider bandwidth channels, you can start having data rates that approach the bandwidth needed to provide wireless cognition, where the computations of the human brain at those data rates could actually be sent on the fly over wireless. As such, you could have drones or robotics receive in real time the kind of perception and cognition that the human brain could do.
The conventional wisdom is that as you go higher in frequency, you get more loss. “That’s only if you use an omnidirectional antenna, the old way of doing cellular 10 and 20 years ago. When you start using directional antennas, what happens is, you actually do better as you go higher in frequency for a given power level and a given antenna physical size,” Rappaport said.
The FCC’s Spectrum Horizons First Report and Order creates a new category of experimental licenses for use of frequencies between 95 GHz and 3 THz. These licenses will give innovators the flexibility to conduct experiments lasting up to 10 years, and to more easily market equipment during the experimental period, according to the FCC.
The item also makes a total of 21.2 gigahertz of spectrum available for use by unlicensed devices. The Commission selected bands with propagation characteristics that will permit large numbers of unlicensed devices to use the spectrum, while limiting the potential for interference to existing governmental and scientific operations in the above-95 GHz bands, such as space research and atmospheric sensing.
The First Report and Order provides unprecedented opportunities for new experimental and unlicensed use in the frequencies above 95 GHz and will help ensure that the United States stays at the forefront of wireless innovation. Moreover, study of these uses could ultimately lead to further rulemaking actions and additional licensing opportunities within the Spectrum Horizons bands.
“Today, we take big steps towards making productive use of this spectrum,” Pai said in his statement. “We allocate a massive 21 gigahertz for unlicensed use and we create a new category of experimental licenses. This will give innovators strong incentives to develop new technologies using these airwaves while also protecting existing uses.”