Just how accurate are carrier coverage maps? That’s the question Ohio’s Department of Transportation is trying to answer as it seeks to improve its public safety dispatch and routing equipment. And what the department has found are significant gaps in perceived versus actual coverage in large chunks of the state.
Ohio has enlisted Connected Nation, a tech organization dedicated to expanding broadband access, to conduct drive tests across the state to provide data that will be the basis of improvements to Ohio’s rural transit systems’ scheduling and dispatching software/hardware. Director of Engineering and Technical Services Chip Spann said the group is testing performance across all four major U.S. carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. But while much of Ohio appears bathed in color-coded coverage on carrier maps, Spann said actual performance – particularly in the southeastern part of the state – is lacking.
“We found a substantial difference in the ‘perceived’ coverage reported by the mobile carriers in these counties,” Spann said. “While their coverage maps are often based on predictive propagation models, we took the long and in-depth approach of drive testing every inch of those ten counties that we could physically access.”
Spann said his tests serve a more important purpose than boosting coverage for vanity posts of selfies or even more complex use cases like self-driving cars or public transit. The lack of connectivity in these areas actually has dangerous implications, he said.
“There’s a bigger piece of this in regard to public safety,” he explained. “Imagine if you’re in a car wreck and you’re hurt. Having a way to get help can mean the difference between life and death. The same goes for law enforcement. What happens if an officer gets into a dangerous situation and can’t contact someone? Or, what if a person who is stopped for a routine traffic violation is actually a criminal and they are only ticketed and not taken into custody simply because the officer has no way of knowing that person is a danger to the public?”
Connected Nation said it is currently sharing its drive test results with ODOT, the state of Ohio, and the communities most directly impacted. Its maps break down coverage by each individual carrier and provide an overview of where broadband is lacking. The group said it will also provide a “road map” for eliminating those gaps to those stakeholders and to the carriers.
But this isn’t just an issue in Ohio.
AT&T will be tackling these same challenges in its deployment of a nationwide network of first responders (FirstNet), which could begin as soon as this year. Legislators, though, are also jumping into the fray.
Back in March, a bill (known as H.R. 1546 or the Rural Wireless Access Act of 2017) was introduced in the House of Representatives that would require the Federal Communications Commission to “establish a consistent method for its collection of coverage data relating to the availability, speed tiers, and performance characteristics of commercial mobile service or commercial mobile data service.” Earlier this month, a similar measure (S. 1104, also dubbed the Rural Wireless Access Act of 2017) made its debut in the Senate.
Sponsors of the Senate bill – including Senators Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – said it will help address concerns the FCC’s current data “does not reflect the real mobile broadband experience of consumers in rural America.” It would also improve targeting of underserved areas by ensuring “ongoing efforts to close the broadband gap are guided by a realistic understanding of the mobile broadband coverage currently available to rural consumers,” Manchin said.
Action has yet to be taken on either bill.