Why US cellcos don’t want FCC’s broadband map to include 5G

5G map
Image credit: Kat72

ITEM: Mobile operators in the US want you to know that they have the most extensive 5G coverage compared to the competition, but they don’t want you to know exactly where it is – or at least they don’t want to be required by the FCC to draw you a map.  

Back in August, the FCC adopted a new process [PDF] to collect data on fixed broadband services in order to generate accurate and granular geospatial maps showing where such services are available. The “Digital Opportunity Data Collection” initiative aims to collect data supplied service providers, as well as crowd-sourced data from consumers and state/local governments. The resulting publicly available maps will also inform the FCC which locations would be best served by its universal service fund programs.

That data collection plan doesn’t include mobile broadband, but the FCC is currently seeking comments from the industry and the public on how to go about collecting mobile data and incorporating it into its broadband map.

The official comments from AT&T, Verizon and mobile industry organization CTIA [all PDFs] generally state the same position: they support the idea in principle, but want 5G to be exempt from the whole process – at least for now – simply because it’s too new.

If that sounds like a copout, it isn’t, exactly – it’s an extension of the CTIA’s recommendation that the collected mobile data should be simplified, standardized and reflect real-world customer experience, rather than technical engineering data like signal strength. There should also be an agreed upon set of SLAs – for example, “5 Mbps download speed and a 1 Mbps upload speed with a cell edge probability of 90 percent and a cell loading of 50 percent” for LTE networks.

According to Verizon’s comment, this is easy to do for a mature and widely deployed technology like LTE – but it’s virtually impossible to do with 5G because there isn’t even a standard way to deploy it, let alone determine the basic common parameters that everyone agrees on.

AT&T voiced an additional concern – they’re worried that mapping 5G coverage “could reveal sensitive information about cell site locations and even customer locations, in cases where 5G is being deployed in high-band spectrum for specific enterprise customers.”

However, this argument seems a little odd, given that cell site locations aren’t exactly classified information. Also, as far as I know, the data collected wouldn’t reveal the identities of specific customers using the service. I mean, yes, you could probably work out that a 28-GHz small cell covering a particular enterprise campus is likely providing 5G service to that enterprise, but I’m hard put to think of any given 5G app in which an enterprise would not want anyone else to know it uses 5G.

That said, a post from Ars Technica offers one potential reason AT&T is worried about mapping its 5G sites publicly: it could put a kink in its 5G marketing hype.

Like early-adopter 5G operators everywhere, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have turned up their marketing megaphones to 11 in terms of being first with 5G and having more coverage than the competition. Verizon, for example, says its 5G network will be available in 30 cities by the end of this year, while AT&T has said it will offer 5G “nationwide” by roughly the end of June 2020.

However, that doesn’t mean Verizon’s 5G will be geographically available everywhere in those 30 cities, or that AT&T’s 5G network will cover every inch of the nation. In reality, 5G coverage will be spotty and users will spend far more time falling back to 4G, 3G and EDGE. That’s easy to gloss over in TV commercials and social media campaigns promoting your 5G service – it’s less so when users can look at a map and see your actual coverage.

Granted, T-Mobile doesn’t seem to mind that its 5G coverage is limited – they put their maps where people can see them. But then T-Mobile didn’t relabel their 4G network as ‘5G Evolution’ to make it look like they were much further ahead of the 5G deployment curve than anyone else. AT&T did. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, I like the idea of a central mobile broadband coverage map using crowdsourced data to show consumers exactly what their various broadband options are where they live, who offers what and what kind of experience they should expect. It would also be a great tool for mobile operators to let their customers know clearly when they can expect to drop down from 5G, and which areas would benefit from extra coverage.

That tool would be beneficial just about anywhere in the world – the UN’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development just released its annual report indicating that traditional strategies for broadband growth are losing steam, in part because we’re used to thinking in terms of dichotomies – user vs non-user, connected vs unconnected – when the reality is more nuanced.

You can read the details here, but the upshot is we need new ways of thinking how to make broadband truly universal. Geospatial broadband maps crunching crowdsourced data could play a major role in achieving that goal. Ideally that should include 5G – if not now, then as soon as possible.

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