Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular overstated their 4G coverage in rural communities across the country, a Federal Communications Commission investigation determined on Wednesday. Despite the Commission’s findings, it will not punish the carriers in any way.
Throughout its investigation, the FCC staff ran speed and coverage tests in rural areas across the country to determine whether consumers were receiving sufficient download speeds. According to the FCC’s report, “only 62.3 percent of staff drive tests” met those thresholds. US Cellular achieved it only 45 percent of the time, while T-Mobile and Verizon met the standard at around 60 percent of the time. The FCC staff was unable to receive any 4G signal in 38 percent of US Cellular’s tests, 21.3 percent of T-Mobile’s, and 16.2 percent of Verizon’s.
In its report detailing the findings, the FCC wrote, “Overstating mobile broadband coverage misleads the public and can misallocate our limited universal service funds, and thus it must be met with meaningful consequences.” Outside of punishing carriers, the FCC staff recommended that the Commission assemble a team of staffers to audit the accuracy of the mobile broadband maps sent in from carriers and require carriers to “submit actual on-the-ground evidence of network performance.”
T-Mobile stood by its maps, but told The Verge that it agrees “with the FCC that there is an opportunity to improve their procedures for collection of broadband coverage data for the Mobility Fund maps.” A spokesperson for US Cellular said “that the parameters adopted by the Commission for the submittal of broadband coverage maps would result in overstated coverage, so the conclusions in the staff report come as no surprise to us.”
Verizon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The FCC won’t be penalizing the carriers in any way. According to Axios, the FCC was unable to find a “sufficiently clear rule violation” of the Mobility Fund Phase II data reporting requirements that would warrant an enforcement action. Instead, the FCC will send out an advisory to the entire industry as a reminder that they could be punished for exaggerating their coverage maps.
The Commission also decided on Wednesday to drop its $4.5 billion Mobility Fund II 4G LTE subsidy plan and replace it with a $9 billion 5G deployment fund. In a press release, the FCC said that the overhaul was due largely because of the overstated coverage maps it had discovered. “Commission staff finds that the 4G LTE coverage data submitted by providers is not sufficiently reliable for the purpose of moving forward with Mobility Fund Phase II,” the release said.
Without accurate coverage maps, this money could go to waste. At a House Energy and Commerce hearing with FCC commissioners on Thursday, lawmakers challenged the agency’s decision to overhaul the Mobility Fund II in light of its coverage findings the day before. “It sounds good. I support the build out in 5G for rural areas, but I have no details on this plan,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) said.
Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks were dismayed by the Republican majority’s decision not to disclose the inaccuracy of the maps earlier. “I’m disappointed that we are not going to hold people accountable for those representations,” Starks said.
“We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement Wednesday regarding the new 5G fund. “In order to do that, the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow.”