T-Mobile asks FCC for more time on rural 3G network buildout due to 'challenging nature' of terrain

T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) is asking the FCC for a one-year extension to its 3G network-buildout requirements on the agency's 2012 Mobility Fund Phase I Auction due to what T-Mobile described as the "special and challenging nature of the local terrain" in Pike County, Penn.

"While it is well known that terrain and other factors can effect signal quality of a network at any given time, T-Mobile could not, and did not, foresee the magnitude of the impact that the unique geography and vegetation throughout the PA Census Tract would have in this case," T-Mobile wrote to the FCC in its request for an extension to the FCC's buildout requirements.

T-Mobile was among the 33 winning bidders in the FCC's Mobility Fund Phase I Auction (Auction 901). In that auction, the FCC paid out nearly $300 million to wireless carriers that committed to build out 3G networks in rural locations within two years or 4G networks within three years. The auction was part of the FCC's efforts to bring wireless services to rural areas that wireless carriers wouldn't otherwise cover.

"This will be the first auction to offer high-cost universal service support through competitive bidding," the FCC said at the time. "Using a reverse auction format, bidders will identify a per-road mile support price at which they are willing to meet our requirements to cover the qualifying road miles in a given area. Support will be awarded based on the lowest bid amounts submitted, to at most one provider in a given area. Thus, bidders will compete not only against other carriers that may be bidding for support in the same areas, but against carriers bidding for support in other areas nationwide."

T-Mobile won almost $20 million to cover a little over 10,000 road miles across 17 different rural areas in the United States, including locations in Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Mexico, Texas and Washington. The carrier said it has met the FCC's coverage goals in the 16 other areas it received funding for with 3G services; the carrier said it plans to upgrade those locations to 4G. The FCC requires that carriers building 3G networks must cover 75 percent of the road miles in their "census tract" areas by June 25, providing minimum data transmission rates of 50 kbps uplink and 200 kbps downlink.

But T-Mobile said Pike County's terrain posed special problems, and that the carrier's recent test drive found that it wasn't covering 75 percent of the 74.93 unserved road miles that the carrier was required to cover there under the FCC's buildout requirements.

Prior to beginning its buildout, T-Mobile wrote that "consistent with industry practice and standards, T-Mobile used computer simulated propagation studies to estimate the amount of coverage that the network would provide to the PA Census Tract. Indeed, prior to construction, such propagation studies are the only way a carrier can design its network."

Added the carrier: "T-Mobile has had great success with its propagation studies--in the sixteen other Census Tracts for which was designated the winning bidder in Mobility Fund Phase I, its studies closely matched the coverage data collected via drive tests."

However, T-Mobile said Pike County was a different situation entirely. "Upon investigation by T-Mobile's engineering teams, the company concluded that the geography of the PA Census Tract--which is characterized by a significant number of hills and heavily forested areas--reduced the network's signal levels at road level in places where the geography was more extreme (e.g., a road running through a steep valley). The unexpected difference between the propagation studies and road test data for the PA Census Tract is an anomaly that could not have been reasonably anticipated when T-Mobile was planning the construction of the network."

As a result, T-Mobile said it will need to build a new site to properly cover the area, which it said would take around a year.

Speaking at an investor conference last month, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said that the company now covers 280 million POPs nationwide with LTE, and that the company's goal is still to cover 300 million POPs with LTE by year-end.

Interestingly, T-Mobile isn't the only carrier requesting an extension from the FCC. Alaska Communications Systems recently requested an extension to the FCC's Connect America Fund Phase I buildout requirements because "a pair of bald eagles has nested and is currently incubating at least one egg on a communications tower vital to the necessary upgrades. ACS expects to be able to complete the required work by October 31, 2015."

For more:
- see this T-Mobile FCC filing

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