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Wireless carriers are underperforming badly, according to the FCC

(Image credit: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

When researching wireless service providers, most of us have no choice but to take carriers' network-coverage maps at their word. But we at Tom's Guide know that those maps are — how shall we say — optimistic at best. 

We test the top carriers' performance every year, and even we are sometimes shocked by how far below actual speeds can be from what the carriers claim. (Such as Sprint posting an average of 4-Mbps uploads in 2018. Yikes.) 

On that note, today (Dec. 4) the Federal Communications Commission released a report based on nearly 25,000 network-speed tests spanning 12 states. The upshot: Those carrier-coverage maps don't mean a whole lot. 

Across the three networks tested — Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular — the FCC's field agents surpassed the minimum download speed claimed in only a depressing 62.3% of trials.

Verizon led the trio, with 64.3% of tests on Big Red's network achieving download speeds of at least 5 Mbps or greater. T-Mobile was second at 63.2%, followed by US Cellular at just 45%. 

AT&T and Sprint were excluded from the study because both networks confirmed to the FCC that their LTE coverage maps reflected both download and upload speeds simultaneously. That wasn't the case for the maps provided by Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular.

The FCC's phones intermittently dropped connections even in areas where each carrier claimed LTE coverage. The numbers here are just as staggering and illustrate wide discrepancies between the networks. 

Of the more than 16,000 tests on Verizon's network, 16.2% didn't pull down any signal at all. That was the case for 21.3% of the T-Mobile tests and 38% of the tests on US Cellular.

There are a couple of reasons why the FCC's report is relevant. First, it's yet another reminder that carrier performance claims should always be taken with a grain of salt, and that peak speeds are a best-case scenario, not the norm. Second, the study demonstrates how much work needs to be done to accelerate broadband wireless access across rural America. 

Most of the testing was conducted in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont, Alabama and Montana. The impetus for the FCC's trials was to validate the accuracy of the carrier-coverage maps, because those maps are used by the government to determine which areas of the country need broadband-infrastructure development the most.

In other words, even as each of the Big Four carriers push 5G, their 4G LTE networks languish across massive swaths of the country. The FCC's findings are certainly a little concerning.