FCC crowdsourcing mobile broadband measurements

20 December 2012 by Steve Blum
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Can y’all hear me now?

Via Jim Warner, U.C. Santa Cruz network engineer and chair of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s technical expert group: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will ask the public to download an app and take mobile broadband coverage measurements…

The FCC and its contractor SamKnows will soon be announcing a program to collect crowd source data on mobile broadband performance. A program will trigger tests like iperf and ping and report the results along with handset and location information to a central database. Parameters from the phone that will be reported include bearer (HSPA, CDMA, LTE, WiFi, etc), reported signal strength, tower ID and measurement time stamp.

The opt-in testing app will come in iOS and Android versions. The Android app will be beefier, presumably because Apple locks down access to geek-level system resources. The FCC started working on this project in September.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is taking similar measurements, to validate (or not) the coverage claims made by mobile carriers. While CPUC is doing the work in-house, the FCC wants you and a million of your closest friends to submit test results…

This differs from the California survey in that all data is contributed by users so there will be vastly more of it. A plus for the California approach is that it carries no risk of exposing subscriber’s private information since all testing is done by employees. The FCC has not yet settled on a plan to fuzz location information to protect user privacy.

Consumers might or might not have to pay for the bandwidth they use to do the testing…

Users who opt in to the measurement program may be contributing some of their monthly plan quota to the testing. The FCC has asked carriers if they can exempt traffic to measurement nodes by their IP addresses so that testing carries no user-side incremental cost. The risk here is that announcing the test server addresses to the carriers would give them the information they would need to prioritize test traffic and improve their scores. Of course, the carriers will know the addresses of the test servers anyway, since this information must be public.

The full text of Jim’s analysis is here, and he’s also posted the presentation that the contractor, SamKnows, made to the FCC.
The program is still under development, with a working group meeting every three weeks or so. I’m looking forward to seeing the results – should be very interesting. Not as much fun as crowdsourcing radar traps, though.