The Other 97%: Rural Mobile Coverage, Performance, and Access (PART 2)

The Other 97%: Rural Mobile Coverage, Performance, and Access (Part 2)

Earlier this week, we took a look at the divide in wireless service quality and availability between urban and rural areas in the United States. After discussing the significance of the rural mobile coverage gap and how service providers and communities can approach reducing it, we’re going to take a closer look at the numbers, and some of the interesting implications behind the data.


Mobile analytics firm OpenSignal recently published a comprehensive report that examines the urban/rural divide in mobile access to current 4G networks. Rural areas, as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), are those that are at least 5 miles from an Urbanized Area. OpenSignal assessed states and network operators on the following four metrics:

  • Availability (i.e., what percentage of time that average network users could connect to the network)
  • Average download speed
  • Average upload speed
  • Latency

The first part of the report focuses on the relative performances of the four major wireless network operators (i.e., Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) in rural areas. The second half of the report digs deeply into the variances in wireless performance among the states, comparing performance in each state’s urban areas to their rural counterparts.

How the “Big Four” Mobile Providers Stack Up

In comparing the wireless network operators, Verizon had the highest availability, covering as much as 83.5% of remote rural areas (i.e., those farther than 25 miles away from an urban area), as well as the highest upload speed (3.7Mbps in remote rural areas). However, AT&T offered the fastest download speeds (20.2Mbps) and lowest latency (71.6 ms) in the same remote rural areas.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile offered competitive download and upload speeds and eclipsed AT&T in remote rural availability, but lagged behind in latency. Sprint finished fourth in all categories, particularly struggling in remote rural areas.

Differences Among the States: The Most Divided States

As intuition would suggest, urban areas offered better mobile service than rural areas in nearly every metric in every state. However, these values vary greatly from state to state, as illustrated in the chart below:

rural mobile coverage most divided states

It should come as no surprise that Alaska lags far behind the rest of the nation in several key categories. The enormous, sparsely-populated state not only has stark divides between urban and rural areas, but its individual performances in each categories are at or near the bottom. Rural 4G network availability in Alaska was only 66.7%, and its urban and rural latency measures were 75 and 112 ms, respectively.

Given its low-yet-concentrated population and distance from main data centers, these numbers are understandably poor. However, they illustrate challenging realities that complicate some of the promises of 5G.  For example, 5G-powered autonomous trucking could revolutionize long-haul logistics, traversing long, treacherous routes without the potential of human error to reduce risk. However, applications like this require ultra-low latency, and many treacherous routes that would benefit most are through remote locations like Alaska. As such, the 4G performance data illustrates just how much work and investment would be required to make this application a reality (if it is indeed feasible at all).

The Least Divided States

least divided states for rural mobile coverage
*Rural upload speeds in Rhode Island were actually higher than their urban counterparts, the only such incidence of this reverse divide in the study.

A look at the least divided states might suggest that not all “rural” territory is equal.  More of the rural territory in the western states is “remote,” or more than 25 miles from an Urbanized Area. In the smaller states of the Northeast, the rural areas are rarely (if ever) far from an urban cluster or urbanized area.

Minimizing the divide between urban and rural mobile coverage and access can be critical to the continued health of the entire state and region. Poor mobile broadband access (particularly as 5G deployments ramp up) can have adverse effects on an area’s future economic potential, which can aggravate divisions in government through divergent priorities.

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