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US mobile providers love coverage maps, but not coverage details

A number of major mobile service providers in the US have again voiced support for the FCC's ongoing broadband mapping initiative. But many have also expressed reservations about providing basic details, including 5G coverage information or in-vehicle performance data.

The complaints – from Verizon, T-Mobile and CTIA, a major trade association for the industry – come as no real surprise. They have generally been very reticent to provide detailed mapping data to the FCC, arguing that such data would be expensive to collect and would only confuse consumers, anyway.

More broadly though, the FCC is embarking on a new mapping effort mainly because the coverage maps supplied by broadband Internet providers, including mobile network operators, have been widely shown to be largely inaccurate or completely misleading.

Further, mobile network operators are likely reluctant to provide a clear look at their operations because doing so would allow customers to more accurately determine which operator objectively provides the best coverage and speeds. And that would undercut the billions of dollars US mobile operators spend every year on marketing campaigns focused on that exact issue.

Nonetheless, mobile providers generally said they support the FCC's ongoing efforts to improve the nation's broadband maps. After all, it's a critical part of the Biden administration's infrastructure bill, which proposes to spend roughly $65 billion on expanding broadband in the US. That spending – which promises to buoy operators' coffers – is contingent on accurate maps from the FCC.

"More accurate and granular maps of mobile wireless coverage data are essential to vital public policy initiatives, including the commission's efforts to close the digital divide," the CTIA wrote in new comments to the FCC.

5G, in-vehicle and cell site data

However, the trade association argued that the FCC should not collect information on the location of network operators' cell sites. "CTIA encourages the commission not to use infrastructure information to build its own alternative models of a provider's network," the association wrote. "This would be an expensive, time-consuming and ultimately fruitless exercise given the highly complex and probabilistic nature of propagation mapping."

The association also argued that the FCC should not accept coverage data obtained from automobiles, bicycles or other vehicles. "Requiring mobile providers to model in-vehicle coverage will needlessly complicate the challenge process [whereby mapping data can be refuted] and create consumer confusion about what the coverage maps mean and why they are different," the group wrote.

Both T-Mobile and Verizon agreed that the FCC should not collect in-vehicle mapping data, arguing that the agency has no standard way of collecting or organizing such data. "There is no reason to require submission of in-vehicle coverage data," T-Mobile wrote to the FCC. "Outdoor stationary maps are more than sufficient to give consumers and the commission an accurate picture of where mobile coverage is available."

Verizon also suggested that the FCC initially accept only data related to outdoor 4G coverage, and that it should add other data – including 5G coverage – after it has worked out the kinks of its mapping program. "By first testing the new processes on the 4G map, the commission will be able to identify any issues and modify the procedures or provide additional guidance to challengers before extending the challenge and verification processes to the other maps," Verizon argued.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there were plenty of other comments to the FCC rejecting those arguments. "It is the experience of VTDPS [Vermont Department of Public Service] that thousands of miles of highways lack access to even voice service, much less mobile data, and given the vast areas subject to coverage testing, drive testing must play a larger role in the challenge process than currently proposed," the agency wrote to the FCC.

VTDPS also rejected the FCC's proposal to ignore voice coverage data over concerns it would be difficult to evaluate the parameters of voice coverage.

VTDPS is one of the agencies that conducted detailed tests in order to highlight the inaccuracies in the FCC's initial batch of broadband maps, which were based on information supplied by network operators themselves.

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