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Alltel, America's Largest Network?

Ryan Block, @ryan

Ok, cellphone quiz! Question one: which wireless carrier has the most subscribers in the US? Verizon would have been a lot of peoples' guess, but if you answered Cingular, good on you, they're up to about 56 million now. Question two: who has the smallest amount of subscribers in the US, not counting strictly small regional carriers and MVNOs? Nope, it's not T-Mobile (they have over 20 million now), it's Alltel, with their 15 some-odd million. Question three: who has the largest network in the US? Well, according to Alltel, the answer's not Cingular, nor Verizon, Sprint-Nextel, or T-Mo. It's them.

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.

Now this Alltel National Freedom Coverage map covers some serious area. We can tell where all those roaming agreements and AMPS coverage really came in handy. Let's look at their other map.

Here is Alltel's "native" map. Some decent coverage of Eastern, Mountain, and Central time zones -- even a little on the west side (if you count Nevada, anyhow). This shows broad coverage, but obviously there's no specification between how much of this area is actually covered, and how much is merely licensed by Alltel for coverage (i.e. "Current coverage area," "Future coverage area," etc.). Now let's check out Sprint's map.

So, Sprint's service map: a lot of coverage, but it's difficult to tell how much is roaming, and on whose network. The orange and dark green are understood to be native to be their network, owned and operated, but how much of the rest of the green is Alltel's, Verizon's, or another party's is not apparent. Let's see some of the others' maps for reference.

Here we have Cingular, whose very decent nation-wide coverage is also supplemented by service up in AK, down in the 'Rico, and over in Hawaii.

Above is Cingular's Pay As You Go map, which helps illustrate what their coverage looks like without at least some of their roaming partnerships. Very interesting.

T-Mobile's, well, you know, T-Mobile. They may not provide the widest area of coverage, but we love 'em anyway. You don't even want to see their PAYG map.

Yeah, their Pay As You Go map is a little rough, but hey, they're, um, "urban."

Finally, we have the mighty behemoth that is Verizon, whose roaming coverage extends into Canada and clear up to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Nice. Not that this has anything to do with Alltel, of course.

And, of course, here's their prepaid coverage map. Drastically different.

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.

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