With more than $4.5 billion at stake over the next decade, the Federal Communications Commission has launched an investigation into the accuracy of maps representing national carriers’ LTE coverage in rural areas that would potentially qualify for federal subsidies.

The accuracy of those maps in representing in granular detail which parts of the country have acceptable LTE coverage and speed is a major factor in determining whether a particular area will receive federal funding as part of Mobility Fund II, which will pump $4.53 billion in subsidies into expanding rural LTE coverage over the next 10 years.

“My top priority is bridging the digital divide and ensuring that Americans have access to digital opportunity regardless of where they live, and the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II program can play a key role in extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas across America,” said Pai in a statement. “In order to reach those areas, it’s critical that we know where access is and where it is not. A preliminary review of speed test data submitted through the challenge process suggested significant violations of the Commission’s rules. That’s why I’ve ordered an investigation into these matters. We must ensure that the data is accurate before we can proceed.”

Industry organizations such as the Competitive Carriers Association have long expressed concern that MF-II eligibility be based on accurate data. In a CCA blog post urging the FCC to ensure accuracy of the coverage maps, John Lightle, president and CEO of Nex-Tech Wireless, wrote that the FCC’s current map “would leave Kansas behind, with virtually none of the state eligible for the MFII funds, because the map shows that blazing speeds are already available across the state.” The challenge process, he added, is important but “is time consuming and resource intensive, requiring data points on a granular level to address overstated claims of coverage.” Meanwhile, the Rural Wireless Association specifically singled out the accuracy of Verizon’s data in MF-II maps and informally asked the FCC to do more than arbitrate the industry’s arguments over the data, but to conduct additional testing of its own — specifically, of Verizon’s network in the panhandle of Oklahoma. Verizon has maintained that its coverage maps are accurate.

The maps were published in 2018 based on a one-time collection of LTE coverage data and subsidy data from the Universal Service Administrative Company; commercial mobile network operators contributed their own coverage data to that effort. Initially, the FCC established a 150-day window for interested parties — mostly rural wireless operators who could potentially serve those areas with support from MF-II if the areas are deemed insufficiently served by non-subsidized LTE coverage — to file challenges to those coverage maps, including speed test data to back up their challenges. That challenge period was extended until November 26, and ultimately, more than 20.8 million speed tests were submitted across 37 states. Now that the challenge period has closed, Pai said there is sufficient speed test evidence from the challenges to warrant further investigation into the accuracy of the information submitted by the national carriers.

The next stage of the process was supposed to be a “response window” in which the national carriers could respond to the submitted challenges, but the FCC has suspended that response window until it completes its investigation.

Commissioner Brendan Carr released a statement saying that the investigation has his full support and is “the right call.”

“It is deeply concerning that FCC staff’s preliminary analysis of the challenge data shows that one or more major carriers potentially violated the Commission’s MF-II mapping rules and submitted incorrect maps. Today’s announcement aligns with concerns I shared with Chairman Pai, and I look forward to working with him and our able staff to complete this investigation,” Carr added. He also said that during his time spent in rural parts of states such as Mississippi, Nebraska, Colorado and others, he “heard firsthand the challenges that many Americans face in getting a high-speed, 4G LTE connection. It’s more than a frustrating inconvenience. It limits access to economic opportunity, to a 21st century education, and to high-quality telehealth applications. That’s why it’s so important to ensure the data underlying our broadband maps are accurate.”

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