T-Mobile and Sprint claim that if they are allowed to merge, then California will see “enormous public-interest benefits”. That’s what the companies told the California Public Utilities Commission in testimony submitted as part of the regulatory review of their proposed deal. That claim is founded in large part on T-Mobile’s description of a glorious 5G future that includes download speeds of up to half a gigabit and coverage that reaches deep into the most rural areas of California.
The catch is that this wonderfulness is “projected” and not promised. Even if the infrastructure is built, T-Mobile’s president, Michael Sievert, is careful to add a footnote in small print that reminds us…
Average data rate is not equivalent to the actual user experience. The user experience will be affected by a number of variable factors, including received signal strength, location of the mobile device and base station, and whether the device is in motion, among others.
His testimony is supplemented with an impressive collection of county by county maps offered by his chief technology officer, Neville Ray, that show how much better 5G service will be if T-Mobile can scoop up Sprint. It appears that Ray is assuming that Sprint won’t grow much – his projections for Sprint’s 5G coverage area look a lot like its current 4G and below footprint.
The real problem is that this sort of modelling produces coverage predictions that far outstrip actual results. An example is shown above. It’s two mobile broadband coverage maps for the east San Francisco Bay Area posted by the CPUC in 2012. The one on the left is an aggregate of the availability reports generated by the four major mobile carriers using predictive modelling, the one on the right is based on actual mobile download tests conducted by the CPUC, and then run through the same process. The carriers claimed nearly everything was green, the color of good and great. The CPUC’s measurements showed that service in most of the region is brown to yellow, the color of, well, you get the picture.
Oral testimony in the case begins today in a CPUC courtroom in San Francisco. We can only hope that it won’t be as larded with marketing hype as T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s written statements.