Maybe American mobile phone carriers aren't exactly telling the truth
January 17, 2019 6:26 AM   Subscribe

Ground truthing wireless reality in a rural state Carriers Verizon, AT&T, et al claimed that Vermont was well covered by mobile phone networks. A state employee tested the truth of this by driving through every single town, checking connection strength with a box of phones. The results (mapped) reveal massive coverage voids and big swathes of low signal strength, especially in rural areas.
posted by doctornemo (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
This ranks with weighing your junk mail in order to gain a completely accurate figure to include in your complaint to the editor of your town's newsletter as the apotheosis of things New England Yankees do.
posted by Theiform at 6:45 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


This is good stuff. Thanks for posting!
posted by duffell at 6:48 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


This is great! It may be completely self evident to anyone who has ever left a dense wealthy midtown zone, but this person is building evidence toward action. Fun fact, cell phone coverage also sucks in East Oakland. For some reason I'm starting to suspect telecom companies don't care about poor people.
posted by latkes at 6:53 AM on January 17 [15 favorites]


There's more logistical and technical info in this AP story, a syndication of a Valley News story (limited paywall).
Chase’s digital divining rod consists of six Android Samsung smartphones — purchased for a total of about $2,300 — that includes a special app that measures and records the strength and speed of the wireless broadband signal.

Working in concert with Hunter Thompson, director of shared services for the state’s Agency of Digital Services, Thompson created a huge 500-megabyte file that is stored on a server that each of the phones pulls off a tower signal. The file’s contents? Images from the Hubble space telescope.

The app on the phone downloads the file for 10 seconds to measure the megabits per second, or speed of the available wireless broadband coverage. The app restarts every 20 seconds — about the time it takes Chase to drive 300 meters at 40 miles per hour.
Based on the developer's name, I believe the app used might be G-NetTrack Pro.
posted by zamboni at 7:01 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


Oh man, I could have told you this free, gratis and for nothing. My mother started having chest pains on what was supposed to be a nice drive through the mountains between Lamoille and Washington Counties. I was desperately trying to find enough reception to determine whether it would be best to drive directly to a hospital or stop somewhere and wait for an ambulance. Eventually, we drove to the hospital in Berlin, and she turned out to be fine, but I have no way of knowing whether this was literally the quickest thing we could have done.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:05 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Yep, my house is in a red block. If I walk out to "cellphone corner" at the far edge of the property, turn on airplane mode then turn it off again, I might get one bar eventually. Two bars, maybe, if it's cloudy. I recently had to do that at 6am in a snowstorm because the power was out and I needed to know if the school district had texted to give me the day off. (They did not.)

It's interesting to notice that the coverage results for VTel (the local wireless carrier) skew the results positively for the national carriers. Uncheck VTel, and many areas go redder. The official coverage maps are a joke, of course, and I'd be fascinated to learn what assumptions the carriers' models included to come up with those results.

The situation with broadband service, sadly, is very similar.
posted by The Nutmeg of Consolation at 7:16 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


I'd be fascinated to learn what assumptions the carriers' models included to come up with those results.

From the Valley News article:
Chase said the FCC never provided a lot of guidance to the phone companies on how they should develop their propagation maps other than the maps simply depict where consumers should expect 5 Mbps download speed, but he noted their highly theoretical nature.

Propagation studies often are modeled by combining engineering data — transmitter location, power and directional specifications — with topographical information of the landscape and environment — foliage and weather — to estimate the contour and speed of the coverage area.

But the only accurate way to get a handle on wireless broadband coverage is to measure the strength of the signal on the ground with a sort of digital divining rod.

The ground tests are “an actual real-world test, what the consumer actually sees,” Chase explained. “not some flaky algorithm” used in theoretical modeling that is “based on a lot of assumptions.”

Purvis said no one can be certain why the phone companies’ exaggerate their coverage reach, but speculated — apart from failures in modeling — it could be because they don’t want to see competitors get public funding to compete with them, or even to ensure that the data they submit to the FCC “doesn’t conflict” with advertising claims.
posted by zamboni at 7:30 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Part of the issue, I think, is that Vermont is so rural that it makes less business sense for the cell carriers out here. So, if you adequately cover the entire state, it's likely that there will be places where there are only a handful of people using the cell towers. Of course, lying about coverage turns this from a simple, understandable business decision into wireless companies being slimeballs. Moreover, I live in a large town/small city in Vermont - an area where there should be good coverage. And there's just not.

The difference in coverage between major metropolitan areas and places like Vermont leads to large gulfs of understanding in how wireless technology is used. As a specific example, the Google Podcast app doesn't automatically download new podcast episodes. This seems ludicrous to me - why wouldn't you build in this super-simple functionality?! The functionality for downloading episodes is already there; just not auto downloading them. So, when I come across things like this article that scoffs at the idea that autodownloads would be necessary, it makes me want to pull my hair out. Actual quotes from the article: "There are no auto-downloads: because it’s 2018, not 2005" "For most consumers in most countries, available space on their phone is the most limiting factor, not the amount of data they have access to."

It's just so myopic about the realities of wireless coverage in places other than big cities. But, they're able to be myopic because of the extent to which the wireless coverage maps are wrong. Look at a coverage map of Vermont and you would think that you could easily stream audio over much of the state. The reality is quite different. There are parts of living in a small state that frustrate me at times, but I think the smallness also makes Vermont the kind of state where one state employee can do a simple, clever, well-designed, high-impact project like this.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:57 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


It's almost as though telecommunications should be owned as a public good or something
posted by Automocar at 8:10 AM on January 17 [35 favorites]


Oh man, I could have told you this free, gratis and for nothing.

I mean, that's great and all and this doesn't come as any surprise but "a thing everyone knows" and "a thing supported by hard evidence" are two different things. This map is the latter.

There was an FPP a while back for a similar project that tested how cotton t-shirts shrink when they're washed. It's something everyone knows is true and certainly something everyone in that industry knows, but that project created hard evidence to support as well as creating some data on how much they shrunk across different brands.
posted by VTX at 8:15 AM on January 17 [16 favorites]


Fascinating.

I am in a highly populated county, Westchester, just north of NYC. Before choosing a provider, I looked at the maps put out by the various cell companies. All my friends said something along the lines of just pick Verizon, they are everywhere. For some reason, I think because of the location and topography of where my house sat, I did not get service from any carrier although they all claimed to provide top notch service there. When I went to the AT&T store, they must have known as they readily gave me, for free, a small booster tower (like a modem) for my house. It was the only way to get service there. It also required I have internet service from some provider like cable.

I also had a cabin up in the Adirondacks (not too far, an hour) from the Vermont border. ZERO service for 10s of miles around. If conditions were perfect and I stood in one particular spot on the frozen lake or in my boat in the summer, I could maybe catch a signal off of a tower on Blue Mountain Lake. It was an AT&T tower which is why I went with them for home. A local land owner struck a deal to put a tower on his property and the APA (Adirondack Park Agency) vetoed it.

The gubmint should be providing service not an agency of them putting obstacles in the way. When it is not economically feasible for a cell company to put up a tower, let the government put them up and lease space to the providers at a subsidized cost. The poor and the rural get denied what most think are basic services.
posted by AugustWest at 8:20 AM on January 17


Fun fact, cell phone coverage also sucks in East Oakland. For some reason I'm starting to suspect telecom companies don't care about poor people.

They often don't seem to care about smaller pockets of wealthier people either for what it's worth. Across the Bay in Marin there are plenty of places that are top 10% national household income zones where you often can't get an AT&T signal to save yourself (looking at you Marinwood, Sleepy Hollow, Lucas Valley, and inside half the restaurants downtown San Rafael).
posted by inflatablekiwi at 8:29 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


the apotheosis of things New England Yankees do.

Or, you know, Oklahomans. It's interesting that the topography of the Oklahoma panhandle and the state of Vermont couldn't be much more different, but the lies in network propagation maps are universal.
Purvis said no one can be certain why the phone companies’ exaggerate their coverage reach, but speculated — apart from failures in modeling — it could be because they don’t want to see competitors get public funding to compete with them, or even to ensure that the data they submit to the FCC “doesn’t conflict” with advertising claims.
Both of those things seem to be true. The Rural Wireless Association has really been pushing the FCC on the former but proving that coverage maps are false is really, really expensive (see the first link in this comment) and Ajit Pai is too friendly to (his former employer) Verizon (and other big providers) to exert any FCC oversight over the methodology. The latter problem is harder to litigate effectively (basically: in order to sue about false coverage claims, users have to demonstrate actionable damages, and courts have been unfriendly to class actions, and allowed arbitration clauses to stand). Even if you're harmed because of a false coverage map, you're probably not harmed enough, and it's really hard to assemble a class of people who were all harmed in the same way in such a way the courts will allow such a case to move forward.
posted by fedward at 8:49 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


They often don't seem to care about smaller pockets of wealthier people either for what it's worth. Across the Bay in Marin there are plenty of places that are top 10% national household income zones where you often can't get an AT&T signal to save yourself (looking at you Marinwood, Sleepy Hollow, Lucas Valley, and inside half the restaurants downtown San Rafael).

That sort of thing is more usually a local zoning or landlord problem than lack of carrier interest.
posted by asperity at 8:57 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


it could be because they don’t want to see competitors get public funding to compete with them

Ding ding ding ding! The term you're usually looking for here is "overbuilding." Carriers will fight tooth and nail to ensure that no government funds go to "overbuild" an area that theoretically already has wired or wireless service, regardless of the reality (or affordability) on the ground. Which leads to lots of places with zero service being rendered ineligible for subsidy because a carrier claimed they serve that county/census block/whatever. It's unlikely that they're going to lose that policy battle any time soon, so our best bet in the current political environment is to push for better, more accurate, more granular mapping data. Pretty much everyone agrees the FCC's current methodology for this sucks.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 9:19 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


*watches phone signal drop offline and return in 3G mode*

*sighs and turns on and off airplane mode, waves phone in the direction of the closest tower*

If anyone is wondering why I post less it's because I moved out into the country and we can't get DSL turned on even though the house obviously used to have DSL and cable intalled and a shiny new DSLAM trunk box down the road and network interface panel on the house and everything.

And I go through my 3 gigs of high speed data in about, oh, 48 hours, then I spend the rest of the month hot spotting what amounts to about a 50-100kbps connection. And I still manage to burn about 10 gb a month.
posted by loquacious at 9:34 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Google is driving just about everywhere every year doing Street View. You would think they could load some cellphones into their cars to do this, and produce maps, more granular than the ones in this project, for every place where they do Street View.
posted by beagle at 9:37 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


That sort of thing is more usually a local zoning or landlord problem than lack of carrier interest.

In my area, the rich people decided the new cell phone tower would lead to government mind control or make their backyard chickens grow three heads or something.

Consequently, the flat (read poor) parts of town have excellent coverage while the hills (read rich) can't get a signal at all.
posted by madajb at 9:40 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


I live in north central San Francisco. Cell phone reception sucks on ATT. My guess is that we shouldn't trust ANY Telco description of their service anywhere.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:54 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I live in a rural but not especially remote area and recently switched from a contract plan under Verizon to a no-contract Cricket plan running on AT&T's network. Aside from the price, based on the providers' coverage maps I should get fewer areas of poor/no signal on AT&T vs. Verizon. But I've found with AT&T I sometimes have a hard time getting enough bandwidth even in the middle of town to, for example, find what Home Depot aisle stocks the particular widgets I'm looking for without having to talk to a human being.
posted by drlith at 10:02 AM on January 17


So good. It's nice to see state officials do their job creatively. Particularly in contrast to the Ajit Pai FCC which is hellbent on doing nothing except make sure carriers can pocket all the money possible in as short a time as possible.

I suspect a lot of the discrepancy here is the difference between theoretical coverage and reality on the ground. Once you add mountains, trees, buildings, and congestion to the mix that nice theoretical map of "we have a cell tower in the area!" falls apart. Not that it's any sort of excuse.

What's particularly offensive is the cellular infrastructure have this data themselves, in their towers. They're monitoring bandwidth and usage and dropped packets and dropped calls. They know exactly how bad their networks are. But of course they won't share that info and nothing compels them to. Certainly not the FCC.
posted by Nelson at 10:15 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I don't know how it is in the US, but one of my favorite things about traveling to Europe is that I can get a better cell phone plan out of a vending machine in an airport than I can get from any Canadian telco anywhere in Canada for any amount of money.
posted by mhoye at 11:41 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


In my area, the rich people decided the new cell phone tower would lead to government mind control or make their backyard chickens grow three heads or something.

Yep. Once I got turned around in the dark and found myself in a hilly residential maze in San Mateo County, CA. I have strong memories of stopping (because I didn't have satnav on my car, but I could still pull out my phone and use Google Maps) in front of someone's house, noticing my phone signal was very poor, then looking up to see a NO CELL PHONE TOWERS IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD sign in the front yard. It's still shocking to me. Who wouldn't want better coverage? They'll even put up those dumb fake trees if you're into that kind of thing!

(But honestly this coverage-mapping fellow is a hero and I would like someone to do this along the California coast, please)
posted by grandiloquiet at 12:07 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I don't know how it is in the US, but one of my favorite things about traveling to Europe is that I can get a better cell phone plan out of a vending machine in an airport than I can get from any Canadian telco anywhere in Canada for any amount of money.


Yeah when I travel to London I can get a better short term plan (like a week or two) from a drug store than I can from anywhere in the US.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:33 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


You would think they could load some cellphones into their cars to do this, and produce maps, more granular than the ones in this project

Given they admitted previously they were capturing all sorts of meta-data during the driving, like Wi-Fi SSIDs etc, I'd be shocked it they weren't doing it...but would suspect it would be more useful to them for optimizing their Google FI phone network etc. and being some sort of competitive advantage in negotiating access / planning that service out.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 1:09 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, Google neither owns nor operates the cell towers used for their "Fi" phone service. Those cell sites are owned by Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. Google pays wholesale rates to these operators and resells the cellular services to their customers.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 3:23 PM on January 17


No one living in a rural area is surprised by this.
posted by SLC Mom at 4:08 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


The curly cord years had phone service everywhere and a Public Utility Commission in every State for oversight. Rate increases could only happen with the PUC's approval. And they counted consumer complaints and fined the carrier accordingly.
Cellphone companies have no such overseer apparatus, they are happy to be guided by Free Markets.
I wonder how that happened, but at any rate, its a pretty cartographic illustration of those Market Forces, but go ahead and call it coverage anyhow.
posted by Fupped Duck at 4:27 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Google neither owns nor operates the cell towers used for their "Fi" phone service.

Yip - but having an ultra accurate map of the real strength of signal for each carrier sure would come in handy to drive a more competitive price from those three / enable google to know where they may want to add their own WiFi coverage in the future to optimize a reduction in gaps etc. That data would be very valuable to that business if they real want to grow FI so my point was they aren’t going to give it away.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 8:03 PM on January 17


Betelgeuse: ""For most consumers in most countries, available space on their phone is the most limiting factor, not the amount of data they have access to." "

While that is likely true it sure is frustrating when these assumptions bite you. My 3 hour commute between home and work is about 70% no coverage and I've had more than a few apps that just don't work. I don't understand it really; well off people who buy things tend to travel by plane and own property out in the country.

beagle: "Google is driving just about everywhere every year doing Street View. You would think they could load some cellphones into their cars to do this, and produce maps, more granular than the ones in this project, for every place where they do Street View."

They probably know exactly where cell coverage is already just from tracking users.
posted by Mitheral at 4:24 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Oh man, I could have told you this free, gratis and for nothing.

No one living in a rural area is surprised by this.


Everyone living in a rural area knows this, but the point is that these folks actually work for the State of Vermont where they have a professional (and probably personal) obligation to the residents of their rural state to obtain economically necessary services, and they are collecting good hard data to create some policy change.

I live in a town fortunately covered by broadband right next to a bunch of towns that are not, and have been following this issue for years; this is an interesting experiment and I am very curious as to what the outcome will be. I have to say I'm pessimistic on account of those aformentioned Market Forces, but I applaud them for trying.
posted by epanalepsis at 7:57 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


I have to admit, I was distracted from the main story by the bit about the official road sign that says, "This is not a road."
posted by Chrysostom at 9:01 PM on January 31


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