Is It Fine Art, or Did They Miss the Forest for the Trees? The FCC’s Mobile Broadband Challenge Process

In one scene from the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Ferris and his friend Cameron visit the Chicago Art Institute and stand before Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” As Cameron stares into the eyes of a little girl holding her mother’s hand, the camera zooms into the painting until the face of the girl disappears into a group of unidentifiable dots of paint on canvas. The scene illustrates the technique of “pointillism,” which creates an image using small dots or “points” of paint.    

In response to the Broadband DATA Act,[1] the FCC now finds itself attempting to paint a picture of mobile broadband coverage using test points. The accuracy of this picture will ultimately affect the distribution of billions of dollars. Accordingly, it is important that challenges to carrier coverage be based on solid evidence. In support of this goal, the Commission has released a Public Notice entitled “Comment Sought on Technical Requirements for the Mobile Challenge, Verification, and Crowdsource Processes Required Under the Broadband DATA Act,” in which it proposes procedures for testing the accuracy of carrier coverage maps. The FCC plan requires any party challenging a carrier’s coverage map to use sufficient test points over a defined canvas to illustrate alleged holes in carrier coverage. What remains to be seen is whether the FCC’s test plan will create a coherent picture or a meaningless set of dots.

Under the Commission’s proposed plan, any consumer, governmental entity or other third party who wishes to raise a “cognizable challenge” is required to present “negative” test points across a “geographic threshold,” a “temporal threshold,” and a “testing threshold.” In other words, test calls must show a lack of coverage over a sufficiently broad area, for an extended time period, using a reasonable number of tests. The geographic threshold is established using a predetermined grid of hexagons developed by Uber Technologies. These hexagons can be divided into various levels of granularity ranging from zero to fifteen, but the smallest area the FCC will recognize is a size 8 hexagon or “hex-8.” For testing, this “hex-8” is further divided into seven smaller units known as “child hexagons” or “point-hexes.” If a challenger can show a failed test call in four of the seven “point-hexes” that make up  a “hex-8,” then the challenge will be considered valid (there must be a minimum of five negative tests, but they need be in only four point-hexes).    

The FCC deserves a round of applause for developing such a thorough and detailed testing plan, which attempts to measure carrier coverage over time and geography in a statistically valid manner.  As the Commission recognizes, however, coverage is not static, and if you get your face close enough to the picture, you can find holes almost anywhere.  This is because mobile coverage often varies throughout the day based on changing loads, weather, foliage, and moving obstructions. Moreover, even in the best coverage areas, holes can exist due to localized terrain, clutter, and other factors beyond a carrier’s control. As a result, a carrier could demonstrate positive test results (i.e., coverage) in all seven point-hexes within a hex-8, but still fail the challenge if there are also negative tests in four. 

The Commission attempts to address this issue by defining relatively small geographic areas for testing (a point-hex may be only a few city blocks). But due to building placement, zoning restrictions, or any number of other factors, there may be both dead spots and robust coverage within the same point-hex. The question is whether this procedure will paint a picture of “on-the-ground-truth,” to use the Commission’s language, or did we just get so close to the painting, we can no longer see the child’s face. 

[1] Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, Pub. L. No. 116-130, 134 Stat. 228 (2020).


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