Carrier coverage claims: What does covering “X-percentage” of Americans really …

31 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Carrier coverage claims: What does covering “X-percentage” of Americans really mean?.

NEW YORK — The major wireless carriers spend a bundle on advertising to convince you they have the best network or the widest coverage. T-Mobile’s newest coverage map paints a rosier picture of the network’s reach, part of its continuing efforts to steal more customers from its rivals. The T-Mobile blog says it’s incorporating “real-time customer usage” into its maps, which it argues gives a more accurate picture of what your experience would be like if you make the leap from Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint. If there is any perceived weak point in the US wireless infrastructure, it could be argued that it is actual physical coverage, the ability to pick-up a carrier signal anywhere, anytime.

It’s replacing the often outdated (and questionably accurate) coverage map with what it calls the industry’s first and only crowdsourced, customer-verified network coverage map. That said, the “Un-carrier” seems confident enough that it will keep improving that it’s letting users access a new coverage map that offers detailed information about where its network is strong and where it’s still weak. “T-Mobile’s new Next-Gen Network Map reflects near real-time customer experiences on our network — based on more than 200 million actual customer usage data points every day,” explains T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray. “On top of that — to validate and augment our own collected data — our new map also incorporates additional customer usage data from trusted third-party sources, including Inrix and others.” Among other things, Ray says that the map will include “customer-verified coverage based on actual customer usage” that will show you “exactly where you can expect 4G LTE, 4G, 3G or other levels of coverage.” This means that if you’re taking a trip out to a more rural area, you’ll know where you’re more likely to get good coverage and where you’re more likely to have slow data service. While not quite enough to warrant a full-fledged Un-carrier event, the new approach could still come in handy for both prospective and existing customers. From T-Mobile’s perspective, the hope is that we’ll continually see improvements to the map as the year goes by as the company works to expand its LTE network’s reach to 300 million PoPs.

That is why providers use carefully parsed marketing language like “service to over 95% of Americans,” versus claiming, “We cover 95% of the country.” It is fairly self-explanatory that the physical gaps we see in a coverage map are areas of low, or zero, population density, even in the immediate areas outside some western cities. T-Mobile’s chief technology officer Neville Ray explains that the carriers have been basing network maps on “predictive coverage estimations.” Now he says there are more advanced technologies for determining coverage — notably actual customer data. A Verified Coverage icon indicating where the majority of data is provided by T-Mobile customers reporting their actual network experience, providing an added layer of confidence. Customers will be able to drill down to granular levels on the map to see if coverage is available and in many cases what kinds of speeds are available.

It didn’t offer other specifics about how it’s collecting such information from customers, only using general terminology like “customer verified.” The story behind the story: T-Mobile’s “un-carrier” branding is all about trying to set itself apart from its competitors. Given the incumbent nature of AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks, going back to the original A-Side and B-Side 800MHz systems that were first built decades ago, it is easy to accept claims of having 97% or 99% of Americans covered by their networks. Data that’s updated twice monthly − compared to data presented on the carriers’ maps, which is already dated by the time it’s printed and published and may be months or even years old.

Many of the company’s innovations have improved the customer experience across the industry, with perks like rollover data and tossing out two-year contracts. The real debate today centers not around call reception but the speed of wireless data and in that respect, T-Mobile’s crowdsourced map is a fantastic idea.

Yet T-Mobile, the United States’ third or fourth largest of big four carriers (depending on how you count), claims an overall network reach that covers 96% of the population. Well, T-Mobile is talking about its entire network, so that includes its LTE service all the way down to more rural areas that might still register as GPRS on a mobile device. T-Mobile is not lying about its statistic, but the reality is that percentages are rapidly becoming more meaningless in terms of wireless coverage in the United States.

The original 800MHz network licenses are still in use to this day, and have comparable coverage and building penetration propagation as the 700MHz block that was auctioned off in 2008. T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s networks (including their respective predecessors) are anchored on what is called PCS spectrum, 1900MHz, auctioned in the mid-1990s, and rapidly built out in population centers and along transportation routes.

Underpinning that coverage, things have changed a little, both carriers have since acquired lower band spectrum through acquisitions and trades, but on the whole, the PCS spectrum of both carriers, and the AWS spectrum (1700MHz) that T-Mobile also uses, is less efficient at penetrating buildings or offering uniform coverage over a particular geographic area. Even as more and more spectrum is allocated to mobile providers to enable connectivity on an even more massive scale, it is a safe bet that large swaths of a carrier’s coverage map will remain largely unchanged, at least for the foreseeable future.

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