Mobile wireless broadband network providers are conducting on-the-ground tests to measure network performance and broadband speeds in various parts of the United States. You may notice slow-moving vehicles with external antennas in your neighborhood or testers walking and holding cell phones or other devices performing these tests. These tests are an integral part of normal business operations that mobile broadband network providers conduct to optimize their coverage and maintain wireless service quality.
What are speed tests and drive tests?
Speed tests collect information about the speed of data delivered to a phone or other device (often called download speed), the data speed from the device to its destination (often called upload speed), and related measures that affect speed such as delays in the transmission of data to or from the device and signal strength available to the device.
Drive tests are a subset of speed tests, and involve testing speed while in a vehicle, either performed in motion or standing still. Typically, drive tests are performed during daytime hours. This timing ensures that speed tests are made when the broadband network is under the greatest demand. Vehicles performing drive testing are often equipped with external roof top antennas to take speed-related measurements. These vehicles may move slowly, or stop and start frequently in neighborhoods, commercial districts, and other areas.
To verify a mobile provider's network coverage, the FCC may require providers to perform drive tests and will specify:
- where the tests should occur;
- how many tests should be performed while in motion and how many should be stationary; and
- when the tests should take place (e.g., timeframes and times of day)
Not all on-the-ground tests are taken in a vehicle. You may see testers who are holding cell phones while standing or walking slowly to conduct speed tests.
What kind of FCC-required drive tests are underway?
Drive Tests Performed by T-Mobile and DISH to Verify Their Network Buildout Requirements
T-Mobile Drive Testing: T-Mobile is required to perform drive testing of its 5G network as part of the FCC's approval of T-Mobile's merger with Sprint in 2019. The FCC required T-Mobile to build a 5G network and to reach certain speeds in both urban and rural areas. The FCC required T-Mobile to perform drive testing to verify to the FCC that it met its obligations. The drive testing process is funded and managed by T-Mobile and does not involve FCC personnel or equipment. Learn more about T-Mobile's drive test methodology and the T-Mobile and Sprint transaction.
DISH Drive Testing: As part of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, T-Mobile sold DISH some of its licenses and DISH promised to use those and its other licenses to build a 5G network. As it did with T-Mobile, the FCC required DISH's network to serve both urban and rural areas at certain speeds, and required DISH to perform drive testing of its network to verify to the FCC that it met its obligations. This drive testing process does not involve FCC personnel or equipment.
Drive tests as part of the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) to help verify mobile providers' broadband availability data
The FCC also will require drive tests to help verify mobile providers' broadband availability data. The FCC implemented the BDC in response to Congress's requirement that the FCC develop detailed maps describing broadband availability and quality across the United States. To ensure the accuracy of the data that providers submit, the FCC has developed detailed broadband data challenge and verification processes. For more information about the FCC's BDC, visit https://www.fcc.gov/BroadbandData.
The following drive tests may take place as part of the BDC's challenge and verification processes:
Third party drive testing challenges: Third parties, such as state, local and Tribal governments and other organizations, who wish to challenge the data submitted by a mobile broadband provider may perform and submit their own drive tests to the FCC. This drive testing process does not involve FCC personnel or equipment. Learn more about third party drive testing challenges.
Provider drive testing to respond to challenges and verification inquiries: Mobile providers that receive challenges of their broadband availability data may respond to such challenges with drive test data. Providers may also respond to verification inquiries from the FCC with drive test data. In the context of either the challenge or verification process, FCC staff may compel providers to submit drive test data in attempt to successfully rebut a challenge or satisfy a verification inquiry if staff deems other provider-submitted data insufficient. This drive testing process does not involve FCC personnel or equipment.
In addition, FCC staff will conduct regular audits of information submitted by providers to ensure compliance with FCC rules; these audits may include field surveys, investigations, and drive tests under the FCC's supervision.
Drive testing as part of the Alaska Plan
Mobile providers receiving more than $5 million in Alaska Plan support are required to provide drive test data showing that they have met their commitments as of the 5-year and 10-year mark of the plan. Equipment used to conduct the testing may be transported by off-road vehicles, such as snow-mobiles or other vehicles appropriate to local conditions. This drive testing process does not involve FCC personnel or equipment. The drive testing requirements are detailed in the Alaska Plan Drive Test Order.
Drive Testing as part of the Bringing Puerto Rico Together Fund and the Connect USVI Fund
Stage 2 mobile support recipients under the Bringing Puerto Rico Together Fund and the Connect USVI Fund are required to submit test results ("drive, drone, or scattered site tests") as evidence of their network coverage. Recipients must include test results verifying their coverage along with their required certifications. This drive testing process does not involve FCC personnel or equipment. Get more information about the Stage 2 requirements of the Bringing Puerto Rico Together Fund and the Connect USVI Fund.