Cellphone companies often boast about how much of the country they cover. But with billions of federal dollars at stake to expand mobile broadband in rural America, state officials and other groups across 37 states say those claims aren’t always true.
The challenge is proving the carriers wrong.
In Vermont, that meant sending out a guy in a gray Toyota Prius to imitate the ubiquitous “can you hear me now?” question as he motored among small towns and dairy farms in search of a signal. Other states took similar steps, and their concerns have caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, which has begun investigating the accuracy of the carriers’ claims.
The FCC got on to the question last year after it offered $4.5 billion through its Mobility Fund II reverse auction, meant to advance high-speed mobile broadband service in needy rural areas over the next decade. To determine which areas would be eligible for funding, the FCC required mobile providers to submit data showing where they provide 4G LTE coverage with download speeds of 5 megabits per second.
According to the carriers, several rural states, including Kansas and most of Vermont, New Hampshire and Mississippi, already had high-speed mobile broadband and didn’t need the FCC’s money.
Vermont begged to differ.
“When we first looked at the confidential coverage maps we called the FCC staff and said, ‘These maps are wrong,’” recalled Corey Chase, telecommunications infrastructure specialist with the Vermont Department of Public Service.
“The FCC said, ‘Well, if you don’t think they’re accurate, it would behoove you to do a challenge,’” he recalled. “It puts the onus on us.”
So, the department sent Chase on the road to challenge the carriers’ maps. With six phones in his passenger side seat running tests, and a seventh used as a map, Chase covered the Green Mountain State’s forested and at times rocky terrain to gather the data that would provide a foundation for an accurate statewide mobile broadband map.
In response to challenges like Vermont’s, the FCC suspended the competition last month to investigate whether one or more major carriers violated auction mapping rules under penalty of perjury.
Accurate data is critical to federal and state investments in rural broadband and state eligibility for grants. Without it, rural communities may be excluded from funding opportunities that are desperately needed to bridge the digital divide. Rural areas continue to lag behind urban areas in mobile broadband deployment, according to the FCC.
It’s also a public safety issue, said Ryan Brown, a deputy commissioner with the Mississippi Public Service Commission.
“We’ve had folks who have been in car wrecks and haven’t been able to call 911; we’ve had elderly people who have fallen and can’t get a signal to call an ambulance,” Brown said. “Lives are at stake in this matter too.”
Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire and Vermont are among the states where government bodies issued or facilitated challenges.
Members of the Rural Wireless Association, a trade association for wireless carriers, issued challenges in Oklahoma.
Farm Bureaus in Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Nebraska received waivers to participate by mobilizing their members. And Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia petitioned for a waiver for himself because of his “bona fide interest in the challenge process.”
Traveling by land, and sometimes by sea, challengers took different approaches to challenging the carriers’ maps. Some tested large or small portions of their states and targeted specific providers.
The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission turned to towns, cities, planning commissions and regional development organizations, whose volunteers covered 24,000 square kilometers and logged 288 driving hours, said Kath Mullholand, director of regulatory innovation and strategy.
In Sutton, New Hampshire, volunteers crossed local ponds and streams by boat to access areas that aren’t reachable by road, Mullholand said.
The Kansas Farm Bureau organized its members, while the Kansas governor’s office contracted Connected Nation, a Bowling Green, Kentucky-based technology nonprofit, which deployed six engineers across the state.
The FCC evaluated challenges by dividing the country into a uniform grid with cells or blocks of one square kilometer. It provided an app that participants could use to test broadband speeds in selected areas.
Speed tests had a buffer with a 400-meter radius. To challenge the coverage area of a particular block, the tests had to cover at least 75 percent of it. In most blocks, that meant wandering off the main road.
“Imagine every half a mile, you’re driving along and then you have to make a half-mile zig zag off the road on to some farmer’s driveway, and then go back on the main road, and drive a quarter mile and go down the next driveway,” Chase said. “It’s very hard to do that if you’re trying to make time and cover the whole state.”
Beyond the driving, just meeting the technical requirements to launch a challenge was difficult and costly for some states. The FCC allowed carriers to specify the make and model of the phones challengers had to use, costing Vermont about $3,000 in equipment.
In New Hampshire, once volunteers had the appropriate phones, they needed short-term coverage plans that wouldn’t throttle back once they hit a predetermined amount of usage. Some carriers donated plans for the effort, Mullholand said.
Furthermore, the FCC’s app didn’t record all the necessary parameters and could not be used in motion, participants said.
“The only way you can use it is to drive and stop and run the test; drive and stop and run the test,” Chase said. “That would take you forever, and not to mention, it would be unsafe.”
Instead, challengers in New Hampshire and Vermont used different applications that allowed them to drive roughly 40 mph while running the mobile broadband speed tests.
Regardless of whether they used the FCC app, the challenges weren’t without their misadventures. A volunteer in Bristol, New Hampshire, was driving in snowy and icy conditions along an old dirt road when she ran over a rock that damaged her transmission, rendering her compact car undrivable, Mullholand said.
The woman walked 2 miles in encroaching darkness — on the first day of hunting season — to get a cellphone signal and call for help.
“She had four cellphones in the car, none of which had service,” Mullholand said.
Some participants said it was frustrating to dedicate time and resources to prove the carriers’ maps were inaccurate. The Rural Wireless Association accused Verizon, for example, of overstating its coverage in the Oklahoma panhandle by 50 percent. “Verizon should not be allowed to abuse the FCC challenge process by filing a sham coverage map,” the group wrote to the FCC last August.
The FCC investigation and other efforts may signal change. The fiscal 2018 omnibus bill, passed in March, requires the FCC to coordinate with the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration in its use of $7.5 million in infrastructure funds for broadband mapping.
During the last Congress, U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican; Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat; and Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, introduced a bill to improve the accuracy of the FCC mobile broadband coverage map and ensure that federal resources are targeted to underserved communities. The bill died in committee, but a spokesperson for Moran’s office said he plans to reintroduce the bill.
By the time the challenge period ended Nov. 26, participants in the states were able to report a range of successes: New Hampshire’s efforts successfully challenged 1 percent of the state’s blocks, according to Mullholland.
Vermont said it challenged 3 percent. An additional 13 percent was accepted on a provisional basis because they did not fully meet the threshold to warrant a challenge.
Some Mobility Fund II challengers said they want to see the FCC take its time and get the maps right before distributing the funds so that they benefit the people who truly need the money.
“We believe that getting it right is better than getting it fast in this instance,” said Terry Holdren, CEO and general counsel of the Kansas Farm Bureau. “As it currently sits, under the FCC coverage maps, most of Kansas isn’t eligible for funding anyway.”