T-Mobile

FCC tries to bury finding that Verizon and T-Mobile exaggerated 4G coverage

A photo of Ajit Pai.

Enlarge / Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, during an interview in New York, on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular exaggerated their 4G coverage in official filings to the Federal Communications Commission, an FCC investigation found. But FCC officials confirmed that Chairman Ajit Pai does not plan to punish the three carriers in any way. Instead, the FCC intends to issue an enforcement advisory to the broader industry, reminding carriers “of the penalties associated with filings that violate federal law.”

“Overstating mobile broadband coverage misleads the public and can misallocate our limited universal service funds, and thus it must be met with meaningful consequences,” FCC staff said in an investigative report released today.

But there won’t be any meaningful consequences for Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. “Based upon the totality of the circumstances, the investigation did not find a sufficiently clear violation of the MF-II [Mobility Fund Phase II] data collection requirements that warranted enforcement action,” an FCC spokesperson told Ars via email.

Read 14 remaining paragraphs | Comments

5G won’t change everything, or at least probably not your things

Artist's impression of millimeter-wave 5G speeds.

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of millimeter-wave 5G speeds.
Aurich Lawson / Getty

The long-touted fifth generation of wireless communications is not magic. We’re sorry if unending hype over the world-changing possibilities of 5G has led you to expect otherwise. But the next generation in mobile broadband will still have to obey the current generation of the laws of physics that govern how far a signal can travel when sent in particular wavelengths of the radio spectrum and how much data it can carry.

For some of us, the results will yield the billions of bits per second in throughput that figure in many 5G sales pitches, going back to early specifications for this standard. For everybody else, 5G will more likely deliver a pleasant and appreciated upgrade rather than a bandwidth renaissance.

That doesn’t mean 5G won’t open up interesting possibilities in areas like home broadband and machine-to-machine connectivity. But in the form of wireless mobile device connectivity we know best, 5G marketing has been writing checks that actual 5G technology will have a lot of trouble cashing.

A feuding family of frequencies

The first thing to know about 5G is that it’s a family affair—and a sometimes-dysfunctional one.

Wireless carriers can deploy 5G over any of three different ranges of wireless frequencies, and one of them doesn’t work anything like today’s 4G frequencies. That’s also the one behind the most wild-eyed 5G forecasts.

Millimeter-wave 5G occupies bands much higher than any used for 4G LTE today—24 gigahertz and up, far above the 2.5 GHz frequency of Sprint, hitherto the highest-frequency band in use by the major US carriers.

At those frequencies, 5G can send data with fiber optic speeds and latency—1.2 Gbps of bandwidth and latency from 9 to 12 milliseconds, to cite figures from an early test by AT&T. But it can’t send them very far. That same 2018 demonstration involved a direct line of sight and only 900 feet of distance from the transmitter to the test site.

Those distance and line-of-sight hangups still persist, although the US carriers that have pioneered millimeter-wave 5G say they’re making progress in pushing them outward.

“Once you get enough density of cell sites, this is a very strong value proposition,” said Ashish Sharma, executive vice president for IoT and mobile solutions at the wireless-infrastructure firm Inseego. He pointed in particular to recent advances in solving longstanding issues with multipath reception, when signals bounce off buildings.

There are a lot of "5G" stock images available. Some of them are more optimistic than others. This is one of the more optimistic ones.

Enlarge / There are a lot of “5G” stock images available. Some of them are more optimistic than others. This is one of the more optimistic ones.
Photographer is my life / Getty

Reception inside those buildings, however, remains problematic. So does intervening foliage. That’s why fixed-wireless Internet providers using millimeter-wave technology like Starry have opted for externally placed antennas at customer sites. Verizon is also selling home broadband via 5G in a handful of cities.

Below millimeter-wave, wireless carriers can also serve up 5G on mid- and low-band frequencies that aren’t as fast or responsive but reach much farther. So far, 5G deployments outside the US have largely stuck to those slower, lower-frequency bands, although the industry expects millimeter-wave adoption overseas to accelerate in the next few years.

“5G is a little more spectrally efficient than 4G, but not dramatically so,” mailed Phil Kendall, director of the service provider group at Strategy Analytics. He added that these limits will be most profound on existing LTE spectrum turned over to 5G use: “You are not going to be able to suddenly give everyone 100Mbps by re-farming that spectrum to 5G.”

And even the American carriers preaching millimeter-wave 5G today also say they’ll rely on these lower bands to cover much of the States.

For example, T-Mobile and Verizon stated early this year that millimeter-wave won’t work outside of dense urban areas. And AT&T waited until it could launch low-band 5G in late November to start selling service to consumers at all; the low-resolution maps it posted then show that connectivity reaching into suburbs.

Sprint, meanwhile, elected to launch its 5G service on the same 2.5GHz frequencies as its LTE, with coverage that is far less diffuse than millimeter-wave 5G. Kendall suggested that this mid-band spectrum will offer a better compromise between speed and coverage: “Not the 1Gbps millimeter-wave experience but certainly something sustainable well in excess of 100Mbps.”

The Federal Communications Commission is working to make more mid-band spectrum available, but that won’t be lighting up any US smartphones for some time.

(Disclosure: I’ve done a lot of writing for Yahoo Finance, a news site Verizon owns.) 

T-Mobile touts “nationwide 5G” that fails to cover 130 million Americans

T-Mobile's coverage map shows that huge parts of the US are covered by 4G but not 5G.

Enlarge / T-Mobile’s 5G coverage map.
T-Mobile

T-Mobile today announced that it has launched “America’s first nationwide 5G network,” but T-Mobile’s definition of “nationwide” doesn’t include about 40% of the US population.

“America gets its first nationwide 5G network today, covering more than 200 million people and more than 1 million square miles,” T-Mobile’s announcement said.

The US Census Bureau estimates the population to be more than 330 million people. T-Mobile hasn’t actually forgotten about the other 130 million people in the US, as a sentence halfway through the carrier’s press release notes that “T-Mobile’s network covers more than 60 percent of the population.” At 1 million square miles, the carrier’s 5G network also covers about 28% of the country’s 3.53 million square miles, and it’s far short of the geographical reach already provided by T-Mobile’s 4G network.

We asked T-Mobile to explain why it defines “nationwide” as “60 percent of the population.” T-Mobile did not answer that question.

T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network covers more than 325 million people.

US coverage map is mostly 4G

T-Mobile said its 5G network today reaches “more than 5,000 cities and towns all across the country,” and the company published a list of those places. There are 19,495 incorporated places in the US.

Despite its actual coverage, T-Mobile’s announcement uses the word “nationwide” to describe the current reach of its 5G network a dozen times while admitting that “coverage [is] not available in some areas.” In the coverage map provided by T-Mobile, which is at the top of this article, you can see that the 5G areas displayed in a darker shade of pink don’t include huge portions of the country covered by T-Mobile 4G. Alaska is excluded entirely.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere today posted a tweet announcing the “first nationwide 5G” network and a video in which he says that “nationwide 5G is live.” But Legere did not specify in the tweet or video that the nationwide 5G excludes 40% of the US population.

The 5G service T-Mobile announced today isn’t much faster than T-Mobile’s 4G service. That’s because the “nationwide” 5G covering 60% of the population uses the same 600MHz spectrum that T-Mobile already uses for 4G. The big speed increases on 5G are expected to come from millimeter-wave spectrum, but those higher frequencies don’t travel as far and are being used primarily in densely populated urban areas.

AT&T acknowledged last month that its 5G service on low-band spectrum offers only 4G-like speeds this year, with actual speed increases coming next year. Verizon has said that 5G on low-band spectrum will be more like “good 4G,” and T-Mobile said in April that millimeter-wave 5G “will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments.”

Update at 3:28pm ET: T-Mobile sent us another reply after this article published, saying that “‘nationwide’ for wireless networks is defined by the National Advertising Division as covering 200 million people.” We were able to confirm this in a November 2014 National Advertising Division (NAD) statement that “In general, a wireless network can claim to be nationwide or coast to coast if the provider offers service in diverse regions of the country and the network covers at least 200 million people.” The NAD’s 2014 statement said it came up with this standard 10 years previously, or in 2004—when the US population was 293.7 million instead of the current 330 million. Since the standard apparently hasn’t been updated to reflect today’s higher population, it’s now much easier for carriers to claim they are nationwide without violating the National Advertising Division standard. The NAD is the ad industry’s self-regulatory body.