Mobile broadband claims don't match truth in California

14 August 2012 by Steve Blum
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The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has finished up its first round of mobile broadband field testing, and the results do not support the marketing claims of the carriers.

Sprint doesn’t hit the CPUC’s 6 Mbps download/1.5 Mbps upload benchmark for adequate service anywhere in California. Verizon does the best at 21% of the state. T-Mobile and AT&T manage 10% and 7% respectively. These real world results are dramatically different from what mobile carriers claim to provide.

The mean download speed for Sprint’s broadband network statewide was only 512 Kbps, the worst by far of the four major carriers tested. Verizon was, again, the best at 3.5 Mbps, with AT&T scoring 3.1 Mbps and T-Mobile coming in at 1.9 Mbps.

Breaking it down further, the only aggregated test results that met the CPUC’s 6 Mbps standard came from Verizon in urban areas, where speeds averaged 7.4 Mbps. In rural areas, however, Verizon managed only 2.5 Mbps. Sprint was 867 Kbps urban and 383 Kbps rural, AT&T 4.7 Mbps urban/2.5 Mbps rural and T-Mobile was 3.4 Mbps urban/1.1 Mbps rural.

This overview of the CPUC’s testing results was presented today to the California Broadband Council, a state board charged with coordinating broadband efforts. The CBC met this morning in the state capitol in Sacramento. Members attending included Michael Peavey, president of the CPUC, Alex Padilla and Steven Bradford, California state senator and assemblyman respectively, who have been very active on broadband issues, and Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund.

“We were trying to find the truth of what mobile broadband is,” explained Ken Biba, a consultant to California State University Monterey Bay which, along with Chico State University, assisted the CPUC with the research.

Wireless providers, both mobile carriers and fixed wireless Internet companies, have a tendency to take optimistic antenna coverage patterns and claim that every square inch touched is served at the maximum advertised speed. Mobile carriers are particularly egregious, claiming Internet connection speeds of 25 Mbps or more in places where it’s difficult even to make a phone call.

To check these claims, CPUC staff did real world testing at 1,200 locations, driving 35,000 miles around the state. The result: mobile carriers do not provide anywhere near the broadband speeds they claim. If Californians relied on mobile alone, huge swaths of the state would be under or unserved.

Which is good news for companies and groups hoping to apply for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grants and loans.

In order to be eligible for CASF funding, a project has to be in an unserved or underserved area, which means that the available broadband service doesn’t meet a minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speed.

The CPUC publishes maps and data showing the speeds reported by service providers. This information is the presumptive test of whether or not an area is fundable. Applicants can challenge the CPUC’s data, but then again so can incumbent carriers who want to keep publicly-subsidized competitors out.

The data provided to the CPUC by wireline carriers seems to be generally OK. It’s possible to quibble with some of their claims, and there are some areas where it’s possible to have a genuine disagreement. But the overall picture is reasonably accurate. Wireless claims are another story, as the CPUC testing shows.

CASF grant and loan applications for unserved areas are due on 1 October 2012; the underserved deadline is 1 February 2013. This latest CPUC research will go a long way towards supporting the case for funding in many critically underserved areas of California.