New California mobile broadband metrics closer to reality

15 December 2015 by Steve Blum
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Then and now. Half the time, mobile broadband in Alameda and Contra Costa counties is pretty good. But all the time? Not so much.

Mobile broadband service in California is reasonably good overall. In some places, it’s excellent. In others, non-existent. And there’s a lot of gradations in-between. But you wouldn’t know that by relying on the marketing claims made by the four big mobile carriers, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. According to them, they deliver super service everywhere, except where it’s super duper.
For the past four years, the California Public Utilities Commission has run a twice-yearly series of mobile broadband speed tests at 1,200 locations around the state. It uses that data to, among other things, determine eligibility for broadband infrastructure subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund. The question, though, is what does that data mean?
As the CPUC’s Rob Osborne explains in an excellent and detailed blog post, they started out pegging speeds at the average measured in the field. Average as in half the time it’s better, half the time it’s worse. For a consumer, that could be valuable information about what to expect. But from an infrastructure planning perspective, it’s not very helpful. The CPUC’s standard for determining whether a given community has adequate broadband service is currently 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speed. If the only option available is a mobile carrier who hits that benchmark half the time, in theory that community would be reckoned as served and ineligible for CASF money.
Not any more. The newly update CPUC broadband availability map shows mobile service coverage based on what you can expect to get 98% of the time, instead of just half. The result is dramatic. Under the old method, only 2% of Californian homes were eligible for subsidies based on mobile coverage alone. Now, that figure jumps to 84%. Sorta. Wireline and fixed wireless coverage also has to be considered, so that number tumbles back down.
What it means in practice is that if a community doesn’t have qualifying wireline broadband service – as many don’t due to redlining by cable and telephone companies – then the odds are very good that 1. it’ll be eligible for CASF money and 2. you won’t have to spend countless hours debunking the map spam spread by mobile carriers in order to prove it. It also shines some light on the intentional confusion caused by Verizon and, particularly, AT&T representatives, who want you to believe that mobile is all you need so they don’t have to be bothered with maintaining or upgrading their copper networks.