Images: Shutterstock. Collage by Hunter French
Wireless carriers are fighting back against efforts to better map 5G wireless availability, worried that better data could deflate their 5G marketing hype.To hear wireless carriers tell it, 5G is just short of magic. As the faster network standard is quickly and broadly deployed, carriers say 5G will result in a “fourth industrial revolution” that will change absolutely everything, resulting in smart cities and even smarter cancer cures. In reality, carriers have faced widespread criticism for overhyping not only what 5G can do, but where it’s actually available. Verizon’s early 5G launches have been criticized for being fast but barely available. AT&T has been ridiculed for overstating 5G availability by using bogus 5G phone icons. And while 5G coverage will improve over time, it will take many years to do so. Because it's been so overhyped, having an accurate map of actual 5G availability is going to be important.
But for years, both industry and government broadband availability maps have been criticized for massively overstating real world broadband availability. Carriers have historically lobbied against better broadband mapping, worried that better public data would only highlight America’s significant broadband and competition shortcomings. While political pressure is forcing the government to at least take a deeper look at the mapping problem, wireless carriers clearly don’t want 5G included in those efforts. In a filing with the government first spotted by Light Reading, AT&T tells the FCC disclosing 5G availability data could reveal “sensitive information.” "It would be premature for the Commission to require wireless providers to submit coverage maps for 5G service at this time," AT&T said, stating that "requiring 5G coverage maps in this early stage of 5G deployment could reveal sensitive information about cell site locations and even customer locations." The CTIA, the wireless industry’s top lobbying organization, mirrored those claims in its own filing, insisting that while the organization “supports efforts to monitor 5G deployment,” it is “premature to propose standardized service requirements” for mapping 5G availability. Carriers were responding to a recent FCC proposal that would use more accurate geospatial data to pinpoint broadband availability. Historically, the FCC declared an area “served” with broadband if just one home in a census tract had service. The FCC’s $350 million broadband map showcases how this results in a comical overstating of broadband speed and availability.Industry watchers say the wireless industry’s opposition has less to do with exposing sensitive data, and more to do with not wanting the industry’s shaky 5G marketing claims exposed. “The real reason is because 5G will be basically nowhere in a year from now,” Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard. “Most estimates I've seen is barely 10 percent of Americans will have access to 5G in three years from now,” he said, pointing to wireless availability predictions from Cisco. Falcon said that while faster wireless is certainly a good thing, 5G still relies on fiber optic lines that feed cellular towers. These are the same fiber optic lines AT&T and Verizon stopped deploying to less affluent areas several years ago despite billions in subsidies and tax breaks. “The carriers have not figured out how to justify deploying dense fiber networks to support 5G after they willfully abandoned deploying fiber to the home to compete with cable,” Falcon said. Dana Floberg recently testified before Congress about America's terrible broadband maps and broadband availability on behalf of consumer group Free Press. She also suggested mobile carriers aren’t keen on having their 5G availability claims exposed.“Right now, 5G is the technological equivalent of the emperor's new clothes,” she said. “It's the finest new technology, but no one can see it. Without maps that clarify where 5G service is offered at particular service standards, carriers have few checks on their claims about 5G's current reach and capabilities.”Floberg noted that looming 5G availability has been widely used by the Trump administration to justify the obliteration of industry oversight and consumer protections, making data on where 5G really is all the more important.“We've seen policymakers from Chairman Pai to President Trump use the promise of 5G to justify and grandstand about all sorts of anti-public interest policies, including the administration's efforts to kill Net Neutrality—making it even more important that the public has a way to check these 5G claims against reality now,” she said.