The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular all presented exaggerated LTE coverage maps. However, the FCC says that it won’t penalize them for doing so, in apparent contradiction to the watchdog’s stated policy…

FCC tests found the speeds necessary to qualify for LTE were only met between 45% and 64.3% of the time.

Only 62.3 percent of staff drive tests achieved at least the minimum download speed predicted by the coverage maps—with US Cellular achieving that speed in only 45.0 percent of such tests, T-Mobile in 63.2 percent of tests, and Verizon in 64.3 percent of tests. Similarly, staff stationary tests showed that each provider achieved sufficient download speeds meeting the minimum cell edge probability in fewer than half of all test locations (20 of 42 locations). In addition, staff was unable to obtain any 4G LTE signal for 38 percent of drive tests on US Cellular’s network, 21.3 percent of drive tests on T-Mobile’s network, and 16.2 percent of drive tests on Verizon’s network, despite each provider reporting coverage in the relevant area.

FCC policy is that such violations ‘must be met with meaningful consequences,’ yet arsTechnica reports that the organization is not planning to apply any penalties as it can’t be certain the exaggerations were deliberate.

FCC officials confirmed that Chairman Ajit Pai does not plan to punish the three carriers in any way. Instead, the FCC intends to issue an enforcement advisory to the broader industry, reminding carriers “of the penalties associated with filings that violate federal law” […]

But there won’t be any meaningful consequences for Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. “Based upon the totality of the circumstances, the investigation did not find a sufficiently clear violation of the MF-II [Mobility Fund Phase II] data collection requirements that warranted enforcement action,” an FCC spokesperson told Ars via email.

In a call with reporters, a senior FCC official said that commission staff was unable to determine whether the carriers’ exaggerations were deliberate. The official said that the investigation did not establish a clear violation of a specific rule. The FCC official said that maps submitted by carriers were based on industry-standard propagation models and that the FCC’s own tests made it clear that those industry models do not reflect on-the-ground experience.

In other words, because all the carriers use the same models to calculate download speeds, then they don’t get fined even though the models result in demonstrably exaggerated LTE coverage.

arsTechnica also suggests that the FCC deliberately buried news of this decision.

The FCC’s announcement of that investigation’s findings today came in an odd manner that seemed designed to minimize the amount of attention it gets. A finding that some of the biggest wireless carriers in the US exaggerated mobile broadband coverage is certainly important enough to be mentioned in the headline of an FCC announcement.

Instead, Pai’s office announced the issuance of the investigative report in the third paragraph of a press release titled, “Chairman Pai announces plan to launch $9 billion 5G fund for rural America.” Pai’s press release referred generally to carriers overstating coverage, but it did not name any of the specific carriers that did so.

Pai’s office also held a press call with reporters in which FCC officials focused almost entirely on the new 5G fund rather than the carriers’ inaccurate filings.

Update: T-Mobile told us that consumers have never seen the maps, and made the following statement:

“We stand behind our network coverage and all of our maps, but agree with the FCC that there is an opportunity to improve their procedures for collection of broadband coverage data for the Mobility Fund maps. We look forward to working with them and Congress to revamp the process.”

We also understand it’s likely that the FCC’s test methodology played a part. Carrier claims are based on outdoor use, while the tests were inside vehicles, which will have a measurable impact on signal strength.

Unless the FCC acts to ensure more accurate models or measurements in the future, we’re likely to see similar exaggerations in claimed 5G coverage. We’ve already seen carriers making big claims based on tiny coverage zones.

Better LTE radio chips and antennas can see phones achieve faster LTE downloads, and the iPhone 11 line-up achieves notably faster speeds than previous models.

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Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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