Enlarge / Ajit Pai, president of the Federal Communications Commission, during an interview in New York on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.
Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular have exaggerated their 4G report in official archives at the Federal Communications Commission, according to an FCC survey. But FCC officials confirmed that Chairman Ajit Pai is not going to punish the three airlines in any way. Instead, the FCC plans to issue enforcement advice to the wider industry, reminding carriers “of the fines related to deposits that violate federal law.”
“Too high a coverage for mobile broadband is misleading the public and may mis-allocate our limited universal service funds, and therefore this must have significant consequences,” said FCC staff in a study report released today.
But there are no meaningful consequences for Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular. “Based on the totality of the circumstances, the investigation did not find a sufficiently clear violation of the data collection requirements of the MF-II (Mobility Fund Phase II) that justified enforcement measures,” an FCC spokesperson told Ars via email.
In a call with reporters, a senior FCC official said that the committee’s staff could not determine whether the carriers’ exaggerations were intentional. The official said the investigation did not show a clear violation of a specific rule. The FCC official said airlines submitted cards were based on industry standard propagation models and that FCC’s own tests made it clear that these industry models do not reflect on-site experience.
FCC officials have conducted driving tests to determine if the reported coverage of the providers matches the reality. The FCC employee report said:
Only 62.3 percent of staff test drives achieved at least the minimum download speed predicted by the coverage cards – with US Cellular that speed in just 45.0 percent of such tests, T-Mobile in 63.2 percent of tests and Verizon in 64.3 percent of the tests. Similarly, staff stationary tests showed that each provider achieved sufficient download speeds that met the minimum cell edge probability in less than half of all test locations (20 of 42 locations). In addition, the staff was unable to obtain a 4G LTE signal for 38 percent of the drive tests on the US Cellular network, 21.3 percent of the drive tests on the T-Mobile network and 16 , 2 percent of the drive tests on the Verizon network, despite each provider reporting in the relevant area.
FCC buries news
The FCC required airlines to submit maps and data with their 4G LTE coverage in 2017 to help the committee determine which rural areas should receive $ 4.5 billion in Mobility Fund money over a 10-year period. But small, national carriers pointed out that large airlines were exaggerating their coverage, so these small airlines might not be able to get funding to improve connectivity in areas that do not offer good service. The complaints from the small airlines led to an FCC investigation in December 2018.
The FCC’s announcement of the findings of that investigation today came in a strange way that seemed to be designed to minimize the amount of attention it gets. A finding that some of the largest wireless providers in the US is exaggerating mobile broadband coverage is certainly important enough to be mentioned in the headline of an FCC announcement.
Instead, the Pai office announced the publication of the research report in the third paragraph of a press release entitled: “President Pai announces plan to launch a $ 5 billion 5G fund for rural America.” Pai’s press release generally referred to airlines that exaggerated coverage, but did not mention any of the specific airlines that did so.
The Pai office also held a press interview with reporters in which FCC officials focused almost entirely on the new 5G fund rather than the inaccurate filings of the airlines. As a result, early reporting on the announcement was more focused on the 5G fund than on the misdeeds of the carriers.
The two announcements are interrelated, as the FCC said it will try to improve the accuracy of data collection for the 5G fund, which will replace the old Mobility Fund plan. The 5G fund will provide airlines with $ 9 billion over a 10-year period, while the Mobility Fund for 4G coverage would have distributed $ 4.5 billion over a 10-year period. The money comes from the Universal Service Fund, which is paid by Americans through fees on their telephone bills.
New data collection system recommended
FCC officials have not voluntarily raised the issue or Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular are being punished for excessive coverage. But FCC officials confirmed that Pai does not intend to take enforcement measures in response to a reporter’s question during the press release and in response to a question from Ars via email.
But Pai agrees with all the recommendations made by FCC employees in her report, including the recommendation to provide enforcement advice to the industry, a senior FCC official said. Although the FCC said it found no evidence of a violation of the Mobility Fund rules, the committee still needs to determine whether airlines are breaking rules in the separate Form 477 data collection program.
FCC staff recommended the following:
(T) The Commission should analyze and verify the technical map data submitted in the most recent Form 477 archives from Verizon, US Cellular and T-Mobile to determine if they meet the requirements of Form 477. The staff recommends the Commission to set up a team with the expertise and resources necessary to verify the accuracy of the mobile broadband coverage cards submitted to the Commission. The Commission should further consider requesting Congress funding for drive testing, if applicable. Although Form 477 providers currently offer a great deal of freedom in determining the extent of their mobile broadband coverage, this discretion does not include reporting inaccurate mobile coverage in extensive areas where consumers cannot receive any wireless signal.
FCC staff also recommended that the commission end the “challenge process” that led small airlines to point out errors in major airline cards.
“The MF-II coverage cards submitted by different providers are not a sufficiently reliable or accurate basis to complete the challenge process as it was designed. The MF-II Challenge process is designed to resolve coverage disputes regarding generally reliable cards “It was not designed to generally correct excessive coverage maps,” said the staff report.
The FCC must devise a better system to replace the challenge process, FCC staff said:
Data specifications for mobile broadband coverage should include minimum reference signal received power (RSRP) and / or minimum downlink and uplink speeds, standard cell load factors and cell edge coverage probabilities, maximum terrain and litter box dimensions, and standard fading statistics. Providers should be required to provide on-site factual evidence of network performance (for example, sampling of speed test measurements, including targeted drive test and stationary test data) that validate the propagation model used to generate coverage maps. The Commission should consider requiring providers to adopt the minimum values for any additional parameters that would be needed to accurately determine the area where a handset should achieve download and upload speeds, not less than the minimum throughput requirement for any modeling that contains such a requirement .
Exaggerated coverage has been a problem for both mobile and home broadband, since Form 477 rules have allowed each ISP to count a full census block as served, even if it can only serve one house in the block. The FCC voted in August to finally collect more accurate data, with a new requirement that home internet providers provide the FCC geographic maps of where they provide service instead of just reporting in which census blocks they offer service.