Several major wireless carriers are facing a new FCC investigation for potentially misleading the government about the reach of their wireless networks. If you’ve ever driven cross country or spent any time in rural America, you’ve probably noticed that cell signal availability is nowhere near as widely available as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile coverage maps suggest. For years the internet has been filled with the complaints of users who have discovered this sharp disconnect between marketing and reality.
Traditionally, the government hasn’t done much to punish wireless carriers that over-state coverage for marketing purposes.
Recently however, the problem has received renewed attention as states begin competing for $4.53 billion in subsidies intended to help shore up mobile coverage gaps. The funds, slated to be doled out over the next decade, are part of the FCC’s Mobile Fund Phase II program, designed to specifically shore up 4G LTE coverage in “primarily rural areas.” But in recent months Senators and smaller carriers alike have complained that it’s difficult to dole out funds to underserved areas—if you don’t actually know where those areas are. At a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing last August, Montana Senator Jon Tester proclaimed that cellular coverage maps “stink,” informing FCC boss Ajit Pai that “we've got to kick somebody's ass” to get the problem fixed. In a similarly-critical filing submitted to the FCC last August, the Rural Wireless Association (RWA), a coalition of smaller cellular providers, went so far as to call existing carrier coverage maps a “sham”—directing significant ire specifically toward Verizon Wireless. "Verizon's claimed 4G LTE coverage is grossly overstated," the organization told the FCC. "Verizon should not be allowed to abuse the FCC challenge process by filing a sham coverage map as a means of interfering with the ability of rural carriers to continue to receive universal service support in rural areas," the RWA added.
Government filings indicate that the RWA held an additional meeting with the FCC last week, where the organization expressed concerns about inaccurate data provided by both Verizon and T-Mobile, the latter of which is busy trying to sell the government on its looming Sprint merger.
Verizon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. And while Pai, a one-time Verizon lawyer, has been widely criticized as a rubber stamp for the industry he used to work for, the growing pressure appears to have forced his hand.
In a late Friday news dump, the agency quietly announced it would be freezing the subsidy program temporarily so it could launch a full investigation into whether large carriers have been routinely over-stating wireless network coverage. “A preliminary review of speed test data submitted through the challenge process suggested significant violations of the Commission’s rules,” Pai said. “That’s why I’ve ordered an investigation into these matters. We must ensure that the data is accurate before we can proceed.” Big telecom’s tendency to over-state broadband availability has been a problem for years, as large ISPs try to downplay the lack of competition and availability, specifically in fixed-line broadband. Historically the FCC hasn’t done all that much to address the problem, and efforts to improve mapping methodology are routinely shot down by industry lobbyists. While this new inquiry could still end with nobody being held responsible for years of over-stating wireless availability, the fact that even industry-friendly Pai admits this is a problem can only be seen as a step in the right direction.