The Federal Communications Commission has finally released an up-to-date mobile broadband coverage map, giving consumers a long-needed tool to find out what kind of cellular coverage they can expect in any given area across the U.S.
The interactive tool shows 4G LTE broadband data and voice mobile coverage of four of the nation’s largest carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, UScellular, and Verizon. The data you see is accurate as of May 15, 2021, the FCC said in a press release Friday. Users can overlay different coverage maps for different carriers to compare all of the information in one place as well as differentiate between data availability and voice availability.
“This is the first public map showing updated mobile coverage released by the FCC and represents a significant improvement over other data previously published by the agency,” the agency said, adding that it “will improve the uniformity and consistency of broadband availability data collected by the FCC.”
However, it’s worth noting that the FCC also said it created the map using data voluntarily provided by the aforementioned carriers, who don’t have a great track record of accurately self-reporting their coverage. That’s not the only glaring issue. The tool doesn’t address the scope of home internet availability, a leading concern of the so-called digital divide, or the gap between residents who have access to affordable, reliable internet service and those who don’t. Each carrier’s 5G buildouts aren’t reflected as well.
Also missing is what kind of speeds users can expect using each network. Acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a note about the tool’s launch that to qualify as 4G data coverage, a network has to provide at least 5Mbps download speeds and 1Mbps upload speeds. Currently, though, there’s no way to tell on the map if a carrier’s coverage in any given area narrowly squeaks past those benchmarks or tops them several times over.
So it’s a step forward, but just barely, and a long-overdue one at that. The law that prompted this map to be created in the first place, last year’s Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, required the FCC to improve the accuracy of its broadband availability maps because conflicting and outdated data has hampered efforts to bridge the digital divide for years. Among other requirements, the agency was ordered to compile and release more robust data about wired, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers as well as establish a crowdsourcing process to collect information from the public.
Now that the tool is live, that crowdsourcing process will come more into play, the FCC said Friday. Once the backend goes through some final verification processes, consumers along with state and local authorities will be able to “provide input informed by real-world experience” to improve the tool’s accuracy in the long run.
“A good map is one that changes over time,” said Rosenworcel in the press release. “Today’s new map represents progress in our efforts to implement the Broadband DATA Act and build next-generation broadband maps that can help to connect 100 percent of Americans. Using improved systems and data, we can provide better information about where broadband service is and is not across the country.”
In her note, Rosenworcel said that this map is the “first in a series of efforts” to offer consumers a clearer understanding of network coverage across the nation.