Understanding 3G and 4G Coverage Map Challenges

by Aeyne Schriber on June 1, 2012 in 3G,4G

If you have ever relied on a 3G or 4G coverage map to provide you with some direction as to where coverage is available, it is likely you came across some challenges associated with availability and reliability when it comes to pinpointing exact areas for coverage.  Additionally, you typically receive a disclaimer from your cellular carrier that they have tried to make their 3G/4G coverage maps as accurate as possible and the information simply serves as a guide to approximations where coverage is available.

So why do 3G/4G coverage maps sometimes lack precision and why can’t cellular carriers guarantee the coverage which is indicated on the map?  Well, for one thing 3G and 4G coverage is constantly expanding so the coverage map you are looking at may already be outdated.  The other problem lies in the fact that many 3G and 4G coverage maps are based on limited testing and modeling which is based on predictions.  These methods often are not an accurate representation of the actual 3G or 4G coverage which is available from the ground level.

How Coverage is Tested and Measured

One of the issues faced with coverage maps is that each cellular carrier has their own method for testing and measuring coverage areas.  The objectives used to collect measurements vary according to country and type of cellular carrier.  This also results in disagreements among carriers.

Case in point is a lawsuit that took place a few years back when AT&T brought action against Verizon for stating that AT&T’s coverage was not as good as Verizon’s on a commercial for Verizon 3G.  AT&T pointed out the fact that the coverage map Verizon was using was inaccurate and therefore misleading to the consumers who were viewing the advertisement.

So how is 3G and 4G coverage being tested and measured to improve the accuracy of the coverage maps being provided by cellular carriers?  The best example was a project that recently took place in the UK where consumers were requested to measure and compare 3G and 4G networks using a wide variety of smartphone models and tablet PCs at more than 42 million locations.

The project covered a large area and involved about 45,000 consumers and included more than one million hours of testing.  An interactive coverage map was created to allow the consumers who were testing the coverage to enter the postal code for their location.  This helped to easily compile the results of the study which provided more accuracy in terms of actual 3G or 4G coverage as opposed to predictions of coverage.

What the study also revealed was that the smartphones which were involved in the project were on 3G for almost 75 percent of the time and that there was 3G and 4G coverage in areas which were not previously indicated on the coverage maps provided by cellular carriers.  This made the coverage map a valuable resource for improvement and accuracy in terms of actual coverage areas.

Additionally, the study did not include signal strength but it was determined that this metric will be included in the future as a result of the project’s success.  The data which was collected as a result of the study proved that interacting with cellular carrier subscribers is an effective way to measure actual coverage, quality of the user’s experience with the service, and other findings on a massive scale.  It also helped to close the gap in discrepancies of 3G and 4G coverage maps across multiple cellular carriers.

3G and 4G Coverage Maps and Company Liability

Despite some of the examples of coverage map metrics we discussed, there is no cellular carrier that can guarantee one hundred percent that you will have coverage in certain areas.  For this reason, cellular carriers must include a disclaimer that the coverage is anticipated and not guaranteed.  They should also mention that specific areas on the map may have limited or no coverage due to various environmental factors such as buildings, trees, and other components which could affect signal strength.

The FCC and 3G/4G Coverage Maps

The Federal Communications Commission has also used 3G and 4G coverage maps, in addition to other types of radio wave signals used for other purposes to try and determine where the dead zones are located.  As a result, the FCC recently organized a Mobility Fund in the amount of 300 million dollars to help subsidize the expansion of the 3G and 4G coverage across the dead zones indicated on cellular carrier coverage maps. The FCC plans to organize a reverse auction later in 2012 to strike up competition among cellular carriers to see who can provide the most coverage over the dead zones at the most reasonable price.

Hopefully, this article has provided you with some insight as to the primary reasons why 3G/4G coverage maps are not always accurate.  Meanwhile the best way around this if you are traveling is to have a backup plan for Internet access in the event you have been misled by your cellular carrier’s coverage map information.

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