T-Mobile touts 99% coverage claim - but it's for LTE, not 5G

How is it that T-Mobile can legitimately claim it covers 99% of Americans with LTE? That seems like a stretch, even considering they’ve done a great job of improving what was for many years some pretty awful coverage.

Sure, it made giant strides in a few short years. It wasn’t that long ago that AT&T and Verizon were the go-to carriers for coverage in the outskirts. To this day, some analysts insist that AT&T is best for coverage in rural areas because it has the 700 MHz from FirstNet. Others will tell you Verizon is the one and only. Increasingly, bargain hunters will insist T-Mobile is the way to go, and they’re often right. But for 99% of people?  

Turns out, the “un-carrier” is sticking by that claim, which is posted (the old-fashioned way) on billboards across the country. How many billboards and where, they’re not saying. But Fierce spotted one along Hwy 11 just outside Walla Walla, Washington, a week ago. There’s another about two miles outside Lawrence, Kansas, and it’s been there for at least a few weeks, according to Wave7 Research.

It’s not clear how long the billboards have been up; they’re in mostly rural areas. Covid grounded a lot of people so city folks accustomed to great LTE coverage wouldn’t necessarily be passing them by at 45 or 65 mph. But the message has been around for a few years, according to T-Mobile’s PR department. In 2017, T-Mobile’s Neville Ray declared that T-Mobile’s LTE coverage gap with Verizon was a thing of the past. Back then, the claim was that T-Mobile covers at least “99% as many people as Verizon.”

The declaration is notable for several reasons. Yes, it’s LTE and everyone is more concerned about 5G these days. Heck, mobile tracking firms like Ookla/Root Metrics don’t even track LTE anymore; it’s all about 5G, all the way.

In fact, T-Mobile is committed to providing 5G to 99% of the U.S. population within six years of its merger with Sprint, so presumably, in a few years, the “LTE” on those billboards can be switched to “5G.”  

T-Mobile is making a big push in rural areas with 5G, in part to satisfy regulators about those 2020 merger commitments. Because of the merger, Dish Network is on the hook to offer 5G data to 20% of the U.S. population by June 14 of this year and 70% by June 2023 – and it’s doing it with a whole new network architecture unlike its incumbent rivals.

Everyone is interested in seeing better broadband in rural areas in particular because that’s been a tough nut to crack for decades now. Covid showed how important it is that people get decent broadband in their homes for work, school and streaming Netflix/Hulu/Apple/you name it.

Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers remembers when he was a young analyst at a Sprint meeting back when Charles Levine was in charge. (Len Lauer replaced Levine in 2002.) In response to a question about rural coverage of their new CDMA RTT network, Levine said something along the lines that they were going to “cover the people, not the cows.”

T-Mobile is making a variation of this statement by saying that it covers “99% of the people in America” rather than saying it covers 99% of America, Hyers said. However, “it’s a bold statement since even assuming that they do cover 99% of all urban and suburban areas and major travel corridors with their network, I struggle to see how that adds up to 99% of Americans since according to the U.S. government, 14% of Americans, or 46 million residents,  live in rural areas. As we know, all of the operators struggle with providing decent rural coverage,” Hyers said.

This leads to the guessing game as to how they can argue this is a true claim. Fierce reached out to the National Advertising Division (NAD), which often looks into situations where a company advertises a claim that a rival calls out in terms of accuracy or the plain old “BS” factor. NAD had no record of a published NAD case about T-Mobile “covering 99% of people in America with LTE.”

Oh yes they can

According to Brian Goemmer, president of AllNet Insights, T-Mobile owns spectrum licenses completely covering each U.S. state along with Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It does not have spectrum (or gave it up) in American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. 

Using 2019 estimated population data, T-Mobile’s licenses cover 330,830,827 people (the complete area for those states and territories). For their claim to be true, they need to have constructed networks covering 328,512,519 people. In other words, they don't need to cover 3,318,308 people, he said.

Even if T-Mobile didn't cover any people in the sparsely populated states of Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota or Wyoming, it would still easily reach the 99% criteria, he said. The other factor that figures into their coverage analysis is the signal threshold that they use to determine the extent of their coverage. They likely are using an "outdoor portable" signal level, meaning that their coverage represents the area that a mobile phone would work outdoors, not always in a car or in a building, Goemmer said. 

“This is where all of the wireless carriers walk a tightrope,” he said. “They want ambitious coverage claims for marketing and for investors, but I wouldn't expect that these are the same coverage layers that the carriers use for more official purposes like broadband maps.”Underscore “broadband maps.” These claims on billboards and other such marketing don’t really mean much when we’re talking about getting services to all those kids who need it to do homework.

What others say

UScellular operates in a lot of the rural areas where T-Mobile is making this claim. In fact, UScellular has a store in Pendleton, Oregon, not too far from that T-Mobile billboard spotted along Hwy 11.

When Fierce spoke with UScellular President and CEO Laurent “LT” Therivel this past week, he said his customers are pretty sensitive to these “don’t worry, we’ll cover you” claims by mobile carriers. Yes, folks everywhere are doubtful, but folks in rural areas are especially skeptical about that sort of thing given they usually aren’t first on carriers’ coverage list.

T-Mobile is a strong, well-managed company and he takes it seriously when they say they’ll compete more in rural areas. But it’s got a strong marketing machine. And the claim about 99% of Americans covered? “You can do creative things with math. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to dissect their claims. That’s not to be dismissive, but it would be a full-time job” to keep up with all the claims made in the industry, Therivel said.

Indeed, declarations by carriers have resulted in entire companies devoting themselves to investigating claims and delivering third-party reports on their measurements.

The 3 million or so people that Goemmer referred to as ones that aren’t covered are probably people who live in places where they don’t want to be found or they don’t want to be covered, said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics.

As for the 99% covered by LTE claim, “all of them can say that,” he said of the three biggest U.S. carriers. “They need that for enterprise.”

However, he thinks AT&T offers the best rural coverage thanks to the 700 MHz spectrum it acquired with the FirstNet contract, followed by Verizon. That said, the first to have nationwide 5G coverage is T-Mobile using its 600 MHz spectrum.

“If you have 200 million PoPs, you can say ‘nationwide.’ That’s the nuances of marketing-speak,” Entner said.