So after we noticed Alltel's seemingly spurious claim not too far back, we decided to look into the matter. Regarding Alltel's emboldened stake in having "America's largest network," the disclaimer on their page says the following: "Largest Network Claim: Based upon analysis by an independent research company in December 2005, which compared marketed coverage patterns at the time of their creation of each wireless carrier without allowance for variations due to electrical interference, customer equipment, topography & each carrier’s translation & defined preferences of their own internal engineering data."
Well, that didn't really help very much -- in fact, that's nearly incomprehensible. But in plain English it sounds like the firm that conducted the analysis was comparing the coverage of each carrier's network at the time it was originally rolled out, and did not take into account carriers' own "internal engineering data," i.e. carriers' data on their own networks. Surely Alltel would never make this claim -- and fashion a marketing campaign around it -- based on such dubious information. So we contacted their VP of PR, Andrew Moreau, and asked for: a) a statement regarding these claims, b) a copy of the study, c) to know who conducted the study, d) information on where the study could be found, and e) hard figures on the study. Click on to see what we found out.
Alltel's Vice Prez of PR met our queries with two rather terse replies. (Since neither of which disclaimed them to be unofficial or off the record, and we asked for a statement on the claim, we will republish them here.) The first simply said: "Our wireless network -- built out and lit -- covers more square miles than any other carrier. Hope this helps. Andy." And the other, sent in reply to asking for more information simply said: "It's more s.f. covered than any other provider." That's it. Not even a "Hope this helps. Andy."
Now, we had a pretty difficult time tracking down any solid figures for square mileage covered by the big four (and we're sure as soon as we publish this we'll get flooded with the information we're after). But from what we could tell the biggies play in terms of millions of square miles -- not square feet. We did have some vague figures (for example, Verizon covers "more than two million square-miles," Sprint covers "more than 2.8 million square miles."). And, of course, measuring coverage isn't an exact science; roaming partnerships, spectrum sharing, indefinitely dead zones or areas with just generally crappy service can make it a difficult proposition to accurately gauge. So let's go check out the carriers' latest maps and see just how much of America these guys are really claiming to cover. We know coverage maps aren't the benchmarks of coverage accuracy, but we think they could help illustrate the point.
So what have we learned? Well, obviously carrier agreements and roaming makes coverage with your provider vary drastically -- literally, your mileage may vary. If you're roaming in an AMPS only area and you've got a straight up powerhouse EV-DO device, you're out of luck -- as many unsuspecting people have learned the hard way. And then the aspect of 3rd party coverage (companies that lease out their own network capacity to carriers, kind of like a meta-MVNO) can make accurate gauging even more difficult. But we can't avoid the fact that Alltel has some explaining to do, and they could start be releasing the study they're basing their "America's Largest Network" claims on, for one. (As stated above, our request for a copy or any information was rejected.) No more convoluted technicalities when it comes to where you get cell access -- that would be a great start when making such superlative statements, and goes for all carriers.