T-Mobile and other carriers still haven't covered rural areas, regardless of what they say

Rural Cell Tower
Rural Cell Tower (Image credit: Chris Wedel/Android Central)

I wrote a plea in December 2020 for 5G to be the technology that saved my rural broadband situation in 2021, that situation being that it is essentially non-existent. While there was a brief period in which I was able to use T-Mobile Home Internet to bolster my connectivity situation, ultimately, my internet salvation is beamed to my home from space thanks to SpaceX Starlink Home Internet. Even with 2021's 5G expansion, it's a struggle to get even 4G LTE outside metropolitan eras despite seemingly comprehensive carrier coverage maps.

In these ads that sprawl across our TVs, webpages, and social media, we constantly see how one carrier is the fastest or covers the most people—usually accompanied by a map of some form displaying brand colors shading essentially the entire United States. This is to persuade consumers to pick that carrier because it has the best coverage. If you hadn't noticed, all of these ads look eerily similar in that each of the carriers says they have nationwide coverage. Yeah, that's not entirely accurate.

Carriers can say they have nationwide coverage, but it's just legal marketing.

I spoke with Roger Entner, a telecom analyst and founder of Recon Analytics. When I asked him about the requirements for a carrier to state its coverage in an area, he told me, "mapping that is provided is for information purposes only and is not representative of actual things on the ground. In rural America, the map is approximated by a calculation."

As someone who lives in rural America, this calculation is frustrating because it's largely inaccurate. Entner told me that as long as a carrier covers at least 200 million people, it can state nationwide coverage in its marketing. I reached out to cell providers for clarifications but haven't heard back at the time of publication.

I'm a T-Mobile subscriber on my personal phone, and according to the map, I should not only have a good 4G LTE signal at my home, but I should also have good 5G coverage.

This is simply not true.

When I'm in my yard, my signal will quickly fluctuate between two bars and none at all. Inside of my home, I'm lucky to get any reception. Results are the same whether I'm using my Pixel 6 Pro, recently crowned the fastest Android smartphone, or with my Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

The Federal Communications Commission is attempting to give a bit more clarity to these coverage maps by offering maps of its own. These seem to be slightly more accurate than what the carriers themselves provide. However, much of the data used by the FCC is self-reported directly from the carriers, so real-world results are still fuzzy.

It's 2022 in America, but fast, consistent cellular coverage is still a crapshoot.

I have tried every carrier available to me — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. The only one that gets me an excellent signal is AT&T using its FirstNet service that I have through my day job as a technical analyst for a natural gas utility company. The service quality lines up with what Roger Entner said when he told me, "The carrier that will provide the best coverage in rural areas is ATT because of FirstNet." It's just unfortunate that everyone can't have access to its excellent service quality.

Yes, I know this is a pie-in-the-sky dream that I have, but really — is it so hard to provide reliable service to everyone?

Well, yes and no. In the United States, we are down to three major wireless carriers that maintain a stranglehold on the bulk of the spectrum available for cellular usage. These carriers spend billions of dollars each time more of this precious frequency is auctioned off, with smaller carriers left to fend for scraps.

While these radio waves that provide connectivity to our devices aren't tangible, the hardware used to transmit them is. To expand the signal to more people, it takes more towers. Carriers are balancing the need for more frequency to bolster their service with building new towers that broadcast that signal — and neither is cheap.

5G radio tower

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

I asked Bill Ho, a principal analyst at 556 Ventures, what could be done to help relieve dead spots in coverage across rural areas; he told me, "It does come down to money and deployment. From a carrier's view, the cost to serve a smaller population relative to material and operational costs may be a money loser. That's why there are federal rural subsidy programs that service providers help defray some of that cost."

The cost of a tower is expensive, and so is its cost of operation, but the money required to get fiber to the building is another story.

These programs that Bill speaks of are out there and can help those entities that take advantage of them. But even in conversations that I had with my local electrical and internet companies asking what they were doing to access these programs to bring internet to their customers, I was told that there were many roadblocks in the programs. Aside from those, the main hurdle was the high cost of bringing in fiber to serve the homes.

The problem of bringing fiber to serve broadband customers is one and the same for cellular providers. Currently, the costs to build a cell tower, get fiber to it, and its regular operation are so high that it's hard for carriers to justify their construction without significant users to support it. But, it could be a case where companies like SpaceX and its Starlink do more than just save my home broadband.

Rural Speed Test

Source: Chris Wedel/Android Central (Image credit: Source: Chris Wedel/Android Central)

In continuing his response as to what could be done to help relieve dead spots in coverage across rural areas, Ho said:

"Also, many carriers, if they don't have their own equipment, count on rural carriers to roam on those networks. Some dead spots could be terrain-related. At least addressing mobile coverage in the US, that's partly why Verizon (Amazon Project Kuiper) and AT&T (OneWeb & AST Mobile) have looked ahead and forged pacts with satellite players. The satellite tech is looking to address the fixed and mobile equation. As we have seen, Musk's Starlink doesn't use 5G but looks to address fixed rural connectivity."

Removing one of the high-cost barriers to building a new cell tower is a big step towards bringing coverage to rural areas that more closely resembles what the carrier maps show where they all try to claim the best 5G network. However, while this is a good start, it will be up to these cellular providers to realize that even though these towers won't be covering millions or even hundreds of thousands of users, they will be helping solve a major pain point that a lot of rural Americans face.

Chris Wedel
Smart Home Writer
Chris Wedel is a fan of all things tech and gadgets. Living in rural Kansas with his wife and two young boys makes finding ways to get and stay online tricky. By utilizing his years of experience with the tech and mobile communications industries — success is assured. When not conquering connectivity challenges and testing new gadgets, he enjoys cruising a gravel road in his UTV with some good tunes.
  • I have lived in mostly rural areas my whole life. My current residence is in a small town outside of Omaha. However, my business takes me through most of Nebraska, South and North Dakota, and parts of Iowa, Wyoming and Montana. I have found that Verizon is the most consistent real world performer in those areas out of the carriers I've tried (att, t-mobile, sprint, Trac phone, Verizon both prepaid and postpaid). Most notable was camping in a small town in the middle of Montana where I had 20+ mbps internet speed through a Verizon prepaid hotspot. I was amazed and it really sealed the deal for me moving to a Verizon postpaid plan.
  • It's good to hear that you found one that works well for you. The little towns near me vary from what works well. One is T-Mobile, where Verizon and AT&T are terrible. Drive 10 miles and the next only gets Verizon or a smaller regional carrier.
  • My experience has been the same. If you can't afford Verizon Post Paid then Prepaid or Verizon MVNOs give you the same coverage at a lower price. T-Mobile's maps are the worst and if you don't live in a major urban area don't even think about T-Mobile. Haven't tried (been a big fan) of ATT so can't comment on their coverage.
  • In my experience in Utah, T-Mobile does quite well. At Sundance ski resort, only t-mobile has coverage. And on a hike in the high Uintas literally in the middle of nowhere near Spirit lake my phone began blowing up with texts. I was able to make phone calls and reply to texts. I even downloaded some tunes. Others on the hike had Verizon and At&t. None of them had service anywhere on that hike. It's a crapshoot for sure, but T-Mobile has places that outshine the others too.
  • Over Xmas I decided to give T-mobile a try and bought full service for $70/month. When I got home I was roaming! TMO states on its website, domestic roaming reduces your data volume to 200MB!!! Domestic roaming, really? I didn't imagine this still exists! However, all depends on the TMO partner. I blew thru 6GB without problems. I did receive a text message though, telling me my data allowance was up. I guess, that partner was quite generous. In January I canceled TMO again. Even though it worked I couldn't rely on their service. Next month I might have gotten just 200MB,what then?
    My Verizon signal is weak at best. The tower is obscured by a hill which is extremely frustrating. Att just built a big tower in middle of town but who wants their service!
    So I stick with big V as their service is, for now, sufficient enough. I guess, those are the perks we, residing in the woods, have to live with.
  • I (of course) chose my cellular carrier and plan based on their coverage of my home area. For years that meant that whenever we visited either of our parents we were "roaming." My wife, who often visited the northern part of our state had to deal with patches of areas where there was no coverage at all once she left the interstate highway. Both the coverage and the roaming functionality has gotten better over the years, but I can empathize with people who have to live in a not-really-covered area all the time.
  • As someone who spent thousands along with five other home owners to have high-speed broadband cable brought to our separate driveways; and then paying extra to have it run up the driveway to the house (1000 foot driveway in my case); I feel for you.
    However, Verizon did have a tower built, not for me but for the city below our mountain and that, along with another tower with more equipment added allows me 4G but I don't expect 5G till the antarctic is totally melted.
  • Western rural Indiana here. At&t is about all there is out here. Verizon is strong in the cities and larger towns. T-mobile is almost non-existent anywhere in rural Indiana. When I look at a T-mobile map, it shows "excellent" coverage at my home. When I tried to use it about 18 months ago, I got barely one bar on the phone. Speed was about 1-2. The T-mobile rep even told me that I should just drop it and get a money-back refund after she saw there were no towers anywhere around.
  • Welcome to tRUMP country, where politicians voted against the infrastructure bill. But at least they got to own the Libs in doing so.
  • The bill passed, so not sure what you're crying about.
  • The carriers have spent billions and billions on 5G and many people don't even have good 4G LTE. I live in a town of over 20,000 and T-Mobile service at my house is outside service only. What good is that? Both AT&T and Verizon are equally mediocre but at least they work inside. I suppose I should be glad I can get good cable WiFi if I want to pay for it but it's pretty expensive.
  • a lot of my driving (daily) is west and northwest of DFW. the area can be quite hilly, and coverage will sometimes just not exist. however, I'm not terribly surprised since you can drive a few miles between next door neighbors. I've been looking at moving out to the middle of nowhere, and my expectations are set properly for poor-to-no cell service.
  • I have lived in primarily rural areas for the past 20 years (La Jara, Colorado; Bethel, Alaska; Angel Fire, New Mexico), and as a CIO, I know first hand how difficult it can be with limited connectivity options. I have been lucky to be able to use the FirstNet service as well because as the CIO / COO for Health Systems, I was responsible for our emergency management protocols. I believe there is going to have to be some governmental regulation that accompanies some common sense technological approaches to expanding networks. From a regulatory perspective, some viable options would be to require a new tower be funded in an underserved rural area for every $xxx,xxx of annual funds received from USAC, ConnectAmerica, LifeLine, and E-Rate (all the Universal Service Funds on your bill, which is almost 10%). To me, this is the most easily accomplished process because the telecommunications carriers do not want to lose out on this money (note: I use telecommunications carriers here because wireline carriers receive this funding too, but if Verizon or AT&T's wireline services get the funding, we should require the wireless subsidiary company to build out infrastructure accordingly), and therefore they would comply with the requirements. This doesn't need to be some massive law put in place with all kinds of political stuff crammed in, just modify the rules of participation in the existing program. While I recognize that wireless frequencies are owned by the Federal Government and are managed at the Federal level, states also have their own state taxes applied to wireless bills in their states. Last I read, I think Illinois has the highest state tax on wireless service, but Arkansas was 2nd highest (at least about a year ago). If Arkansas has the ability to tax wireless bills in the state, then Arkansas should have the ability to create rules the wireless carriers need to comply with in order to have the privilege of doing business in the state. All towers need to be permitted by the State, so each state should create a heat map of where service is needed the most. As an example, there is a 12 mile section of Hwy 64 between Taos, New Mexico and Angel Fire, New Mexico that has zero cell service. Over the past few years there have been accidents and a couple of deaths that have occurred because someone had to drive 6 to 8 miles to get to a point where they could get cell service to call 911. That is an area that the State of New Mexico should list as a hot-spot in need of service, and the next time that a major wireless provider asks to permit 5 or 6 towers, their permit to build should be predicated on agreement that a tower to service this hot spot will be completed within 18 months. Certainly, the backhaul may be unconventional, but in one-off situations, it could be done. We (the public) just need to demand more of our legislators, and our legislators need to work on very focused policy modifications rather than trying to create massive spending bills to bury the most pedestrian of regulatory requirements.
  • The carriers spent years redefining and getting us to understand the term 'unlimited'. Now they are working on the term, 'coverage'.
  • Yeah I can say with 100% certainty that you can't trust the maps or what they advertise. We live in northwest Arkansas (around a lake) and when we first arrived, we had AT&T. We were lucky to get one bar of 3g anywhere in our house and maybe 1 bar of 4g outside. We switched to T-Mobile the next year and now we get 3-4 bars of 4g inside and out. If you look at the maps of both carriers, they show AT&T with better coverage and yet that isn't the case at all. I have a neighbor on Verizon and they said their experience is similar to our T-Mobile experience. It really is such a crapshoot.
  • No kidding. Verizon has no 5g service at all in my state.
  • 5G is a ploy and a joke. They can't even get 4G rolled out correctly. The last thing we need is a WORSE product.
    However, for our rural folks, the old adage "outta sight, outta mind" rings true. Basically there's no $$ in it so Elon Musk's gross Starlink remains the only option eventually.