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Why are Broad Swaths of Rural Colorado Unable to Document our Lack of Cell Service?

There is a stubborn broadband gap in this country that it appears the major cell providers would rather not have to deal with. Even worse, there appears to be a data reporting gap they really don’t want us to know about that is preventing rural folks from even being able to document the coverage gaps we face.

All may be fair in love and war — but apparently not in the broadband delivery business.

Understanding the Broadband Divide

To begin with — as many of us are aware, not all cell service is equal. Some call it the great divide; while metropolitan areas are drowning in cell towers, and have rolled out 5G capability, such advanced coverage is not accessible and often there is no cell coverage at all in many rural areas. In effect, rural cell coverage can be a lot like Swiss cheese.

The National Broadband Map shows the 3G, 4G, and 5G coverage areas reported by mobile providers. These maps reflect where subscribers should be able to receive mobile connectivity when outdoors or in a moving vehicle; they do not show indoor coverage.

Way back when, the lack of coverage was often blamed on the terrain, the remoteness, or the access to fiber optic lines, which can’t be cost-efficiently laid in sparsely populated areas. You may know the look on visiting family’s faces when their Verizon phone can’t get a signal — or the look on your face when you discover they’ve used all your data on your limited plan.

The pitiful coverage — or lack thereof — provided to those of us who live in rural areas has been bemoaned, legislated upon, and solutions supposedly funded. While rural residents just want coverage, much of the new broadband infrastructure funding (more than $100 million for Colorado) could become tied up with the major carriers, rather than local and regional solutions, and that raises another problem.

Now it appears that there may be another reason for the year upon year upon year we in rural areas have had to wait for better cell service. Then when recently told we have cell coverage — finding that this is not true. What’s worse, it appears we have no reliable means to report the actual gaps so that this information is included in the data.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has developed an app to challenge the statements of providers such as AT&T who continue to claim that we have cell phone coverage in rural spots like Chaffee County where there is none.

Sounds good; report it and we’ll take care of it.

The Problem with a Challenge Test

The app tells you you can run something called a “Challenge Speed Test” designed to “Choose the Challenge Speed Test mode to challenge your provider’s mobile coverage as shown on the National Broadband Map.”

But here’s the problem. When you try to use the app to report in/from an area where AT&T says it has coverage and there is none — so they can fix that  — the FCC app says you have to “Turn on Mobile Data” in order to report (see the screenshot to the left.)

Well, without cell service — you can’t do that; low speed can be reported. No speed at all — cannot. So how exactly do you report the spot that hasn’t any cell service?  See the problem?

The FCC goes on to explain that once a speed test has been submitted, it will be checked to ensure that it was taken within the provider’s claimed coverage area and between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Then the data received from validated speed tests are grouped together and analyzed. Once there are enough “failed” tests (those showing speeds below 5/1 Mbps for 4G, or 7/1 or 35/3 Mbps for 5G — note they don’t even give the measurement stats for 3G) within a certain area and at different times of day, this data will generate a “challenge” which will require a response from the provider.

But if you got a mobile data message when trying to do that challenge speed test, since your report data can’t be given to the speed test — the provider can continue to say the whole area is covered — and you can’t prove it isn’t.

This happened in Chalk Creek Canyon when I tried it in various places; the map says the whole area where I tested it had coverage. It does not.

This is about as frustrating for users as when the Internet service goes out in Salida and the Internet provider on the phone tells you to send them an online report about the outage. Clearly, there is some communication work to be done here and beyond that — some real work by the FCC to give people another way to report the data they say they need to fix the problems.