MEREDITH — During a visit to the Lakes Region on Wednesday, First District Congressman Chris Pappas was told the lack of high-speed internet access in rural areas remains a problem.
Last December, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was investigating the cellphone signal coverage maps that carriers had submitted. It said it was providing an opportunity for private stakeholders to collect data that brought scientific measurement to bear against company claims that ran counter to the intuition and the first-hand experience of many cellphone users nationwide.
Jeff Hayes, executive director of the Lakes Region Planning Commission (LRPC), told Pappas that, despite carrier assertions of 90% coverage, independent signal strength testing found 40% to 50% was the norm in the region.
More than 20 million speed tests challenging the maps were filed with the FCC. Across the 37 states that filed challenges, testers found what appear to be wide discrepancies between the provider-submitted maps and the independently collected data.
According to the Rural Wireless Association, the coverage map submitted by Verizon “grossly overstates” the company’s actual broadband footprint.
In his remarks to Pappas, Hayes recounted that to qualify to challenge the accuracy of carriers’ coverage maps, signal strength measurements had to be taken in 1-square-kilometer boxes, a difficult task in rural areas. To successfully contest the coverage of a block, the challenger had to show that at least 75% of the area did not have 4G LTE coverage of at least five megabits per second, the speed required to reliably watch Netflix or make a video call on Apple FaceTime. If a road did not cut through 75% of a block, Hayes said, hiking and speed testing with cellphones in hand became the only option.
“The FCC opened an investigation into the claims and we haven’t heard about any progress or the outcome,” Hayes said.
Hayes told the congressman that six months ago, the LRPC received a call from a Gilford police sergeant reporting that “Verizon service had fallen through the floor,” and was negatively impacting the on-the-job performance of officers who rely on department-issued phones.
“We did additional testing and found that to be true,” Hayes said of the report of the degradation of Verizon service in the region.
Because of the 1-square-kilometer requirements, Hayes said, much of the testing that LRPC completed using some of its transportation funds was ineligible for submission to the FCC.
Accurate data is critical because it determines where federal dollars will be spent to improve coverage.
At stake is how and where the FCC will disburse $4.53 billion under what’s known as the Mobility Fund Phase II — federal dollars that will be directed to phone companies to expand mobile broadband service in rural communities.
Most of the coverage is geared to areas of more dense populations that provide a greater economic return for the companies.
Hayes said despite all LRPC is doing to show the region is eligible to tap the funding, cellphone providers still need to apply for it in order to be able to use that money to expand coverage in under-served areas.
“A $4 billion dollar fund is something we don’t want to be excluded from,” Hayes told the congressman.