I saw an ad the other day that promised “AT&T covers 99% of Americans”.  Many people would say “Is that true?”  I’m not so charitable.  The question I usually ask is “What does that mean?”  I think there are a few possible interpretations.

The first is that 99% of Americans use AT&T as their wireless provider.  That’s pretty clearly false, and I don’t think at all what they meant, so let’s leave that possibility behind.

The second is that AT&T covers 99% of the U.S., i.e., it’s only in 1% of the country that you can’t get coverage from AT&T.  Looking at their coverage map, this is also obviously false.  There are large parts of the U.S. where there’s no coverage, especially in the midwest and more rural parts of the west.  But given their wording “99% of Americans”, I don’t think they intended this either, though they may be hoping that some people interpret it this way.

The third possibility is that AT&T covers areas where 99% of Americans reside.  I think this is what they meant by the ad, and seems supported by their coverage map, which has good coverage in the more populated areas of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Texas, Delaware, Maryland, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, the major metropolitan areas of which account for over a quarter of the U.S. population even if we only count the top 10 cities.  Obviously AT&T really want a 99% claim, and this was how they could do it.

Unfortunately, this still doesn’t get into what “coverage” means.  Looking at the map, you would guess that you probably wouldn’t go with AT&T in Nebraska, because most of the state isn’t covered.  However, you might assume that you could have AT&T in Montana.  Things may have changed in the past few years, but this is the same wireless map I saw when I moved to Montana in 2007, when AT&T did not cover Montana.  They had a deal with Chinook Wireless so that their customers could make and receive calls without roaming charges, but there were no AT&T stores in Montana at all.  So my guess is that this “coverage” map is still wildly inflated, including areas with reciprocal relationships but where customers could not actually have access to service people or retail outlets.

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