T-Mobile, Verizon may be under investigation by the FCC for submitting incorrect mapping data

The Rural Wireless Association claimed that both Verizon and T-Mobile submitted incorrect and overstated mapping data as part of the FCC’s efforts to map out where wireless coverage is available in the United States.

The claims by the RWA are particularly noteworthy because the association met with FCC officials on Dec. 6 to detail its concerns about the data from Verizon and T-Mobile. On Dec. 7, the FCC said it would launch an investigation into “whether one or more major carriers violated the Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) reverse auction’s mapping rules and submitted incorrect coverage maps.”

However, the FCC did not name any of the carriers that it said may have submitted incorrect mapping data. Several FCC officials refused to answer questions from FierceWireless on the topic.

“Several RWA members completed MF-II Challenge Process speed tests and submitted their results ahead of the November 26, 2018 deadline. RWA’s concerns about overstated coverage by Verizon and T-Mobile have been borne out by challenge process data,” the association said in its new filing. “The vast majority of test points showed non-qualifying 4G LTE coverage—or no 4G LTE coverage at all.”

A representative from T-Mobile did not respond to questions from FierceWireless regarding the RWA’s claims. A Verizon representative said: "We are aware of the FCC's announcement and will help the Commission better understand Verizon coverage if asked to do so."

“RWA member Panhandle Telecommunication Systems, Inc. drove 124,421 miles (a distance nearly equivalent to driving 5 times around the Earth) during the challenge process, and took a total of 3,605,517 speed tests,” the association said, noting that Panhandle spent roughly $1 million on the effort. “Of the total test points collected, 3,232,612 (89.7%) tested below 5 Mbps download speed or did not register 4G LTE service at all. Panhandle’s Verizon speed test data collection covered a total of 2,060,883,573 test points. Of the total test points collected, 1,728,794 (83.9%) tested below 5 Mbps download speed or did not register 4G LTE service at all on Verizon-designated handsets.”

As for T-Mobile, the association said that the operator may be reporting coverage it has not yet deployed. “RWA members discovered through the challenge process that—in many areas—T-Mobile projected its future 4G LTE coverage and reported that coverage to the Commission ahead of or by the January 4, 2018 deadline instead of the coverage it had in place by the January 4, 2018 deadline. RWA members noted that the coverage data submitted by the January 4, 2018 deadline had to be certified as accurate under penalty of perjury,” the RWA said.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—The Sisyphean task of finding and measuring wireless coverage

The FCC's Mobility Fund Phase II is a program designed to provide government money to private wireless carriers so that they will deploy wireless services in rural areas. This is a key part of crossing the digital divide and delivering telecommunications services to rural areas that currently may not be connected to the internet at all.  

But before any money can be allocated, the FCC must first figure out what areas in the United States need wireless coverage. After all, the agency doesn't want to give money to a carrier to build out a network where there are already full bars from some other provider.

Thus, the FCC is holding a “challenge process.” This is the process by which the agency is asking all the nation’s wireless carriers to map out their exact coverage areas.

Already in the challenge process there have been issues. A group of rural wireless operators earlier this year challenged the maps submitted by Verizon as being “grossly overstated.” Verizon rejected that argument in July and has pointed out that the rural carriers have a vested interest in shrinking its coverage map so that they can receive more government funding.

Article updated Dec. 12 with comment from Verizon.