Over the last few years, I have helped dozens of counties get ready for the upcoming giant broadband grants. We’ve been very successful in helping counties identify the places in their County that don’t have broadband today – which is often drastically different than what is shown by the FCC maps. We then help county governments reach out to the ISPs in the region and open up a dialog with the goal of making sure that all rural locations get better broadband. This takes a lot of work – but it’s satisfying to see counties that are on the way to finding a total broadband solution.
In working with these counties, one thing has become clear to me. Some of these counties have a bigger cellular coverage problem than they do a broadband problem. There are often a much larger number of homes in a county that don’t have adequate cellular coverage than those who can’t buy broadband.
I remember doing work in Western Minnesota, where often my dad would drive me to a meeting. He learned to park on the top of any hill (a tough find in parts of MN) or come right to the location of the meeting around the time he though I’d be done because he got no service in the area. So no way for me to contact him. Sometimes I got no service even from my meeting, which was likely in the courthouse.
Apparently there is a way to challenge the cell maps, but Doug doesn’t seem too optimistic about them…
Now the cellular carriers are required to produce maps every six months at the same time as ISPs report broadband coverage. If you haven’t noticed, you can see claimed cellular coverage on the same dashboard that shows the broadband map results. I haven’t spent much time digesting the new cellular maps since all of my clients are so focused on broadband. But I checked the maps in the region around where I live, and the maps still seem to exaggerate coverage. This is supposed to get better when wireless carriers are supposed to file heat maps for the coverage around each transmitter – we’ll have to see what that does to the coverage. It’s going to get harder for a wireless carrier to claim to cover large swaths of a county when it’s only on a tiny handful of towers.
There is a supposed way for folks to help fix the cellular maps. The FCC has a challenge process that requires taking a speed test using the FCC cellular speed test app. Unfortunately, this app requires a lot of speed tests in a given neighborhood before the FCC will even consider the results. I’m doubtful that most rural folks know of this app or are motivated enough to stop along the side of the road and repeatedly take the speed tests. And frankly, who knows if it will make any real difference even if they do?
The big cellular companies have clearly not invested in many new rural cell towers over the last decade because they’d rather have the FCC fork out the funding. I haven’t the slightest idea if $9 billion is enough money to solve the problem or even put a dent in it. No doubt, the FCC will saddle the program with rules that will add to the cost and result in fewer towers being built. But whatever is going to happen, it needs to start happening soon. We are not a mobile society, and it’s outrageous that a lot of people can’t make a call to 911, let alone use all of the features that are now controlled by our cell phones.
If your summer holiday plans include a road trip, you can check cell coverage yourself. Just track how many times your call drops of the kids in the back seat complain about service.