Wireless dead zones aren't just in rural areas

Wireless dead zones continue to give people headaches in rural areas, but also in cities and suburbs.

While the country’s major carriers advertise their widespread coverage, the level of coverage for voice and data is really more of a patchwork. To be sure, the U.S. has tremendous wireless coverage from a variety of carriers, but the Federal Communications Commission  acknowledged last year that 19 million  people-- a significant minority -- still don’t have good fixed broadband coverage that better wireless coverage could improve upon

 The U.S. leads the world in 4G LTE development, but there’s still a critical concern about whether the major carriers will ever sell smartphones that interoperate across all the spectrum bands being used for LTE by each carrier.

Those people who complain about spotty or slow or non-existent coverage aren’t all living out in the sticks.  Computerworld readers gave some examples of their poor service in comments to a story that appeared yesterday (April 2): “Why some U.S. homes and businesses still don’t have cellular service.” 

The article described wireless service problems for businesses in Wyoming County in West Virginia coal country.  Wireless carriers are constrained because of the mountainous geography there, but newer technologies including small cell technologies haven’t provided much help.  The Federal Communications Commission has identified more than a dozen counties with poorer service.

Readers from western Kentucky, Occidental, Calif., and 25 miles from Ann Arbor, Mich., described wireless service problems in their comments to the article.  “I live 25 miles from Ann Arbor (a high tech area...) and have to stand on a hill to get a signal on my cell phone,” wrote Rob Karatzas in a comment.  “We have NO high-speed Internet...”

Added Tony DeYoung: “It is not just low-income, rural or less-educated areas. I have a house in Occidental, Calif. This is a haven for hi-tech, affluent San Francisco residents who want to move their businesses out of the city. But we can’t. We have spotty high-speed Internet, zippo on Verizon or AT&T coverage. It is a total constraint on economic growth.”

In an interview, Glen Gore, president of Taloga Cable TV in Dewey, Okla., about 75 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, described how he had to switch from AT&T after 22 years to Verizon to get fast data speeds for his iPhone 5. He argued for more competition in more areas.

“Competition is always good and there ought to be more than one wireless carrier,” Gore said. “All the talk of competition goes out the window when you’re in an rural area like here. All the big carriers want to only work in big cities where they can recoup their investment, but here we have oil and gas, wind towers and agricultural users—all with cell phone data needs. There’s a lot of technical stuff in the rural areas anymore and it would be nice to have more than one carrier to consider.”

The comments readers bring to Computerworld in emails and phone calls typically talk about how the smartphone era and the hip TV marketing of smartphones have focused heavily on all the advantages that the cool new technology brings us—seemingly instant communications with data and voice.  Those advantages of having access to the Web on the go or voice service are clearly wondrous when there’s wireless service but essentially useless when there’s not good service, readers note.

The dilemma becomes more complex when workers have to live with phones they buy to use for work under Bring Your Own Device scenarios.  Service contracts lock customers in for two years, and while a sexy new smartphone might work at the office and home, it might not work when visiting a customer. I hear this concern all the time.

How can the problem of poor wireless service be fixed?  There are no easy answers and the FCC and state regulators have a raft of approaches that have been underway for years. In a country as geographically large as the U.S., it's clear that service will always be sub-par in some areas.

The major wireless carriers are spending $25 billion annually to expand their networks, although most of their efforts are for expanding 4G LTE into more densely populated areas.  Public interest groups are backing proposals that would require coming LTE smartphones to work across different spectrum bands of different U.S. wireless carriers, although that will likely result in higher handset costs.

For individuals concerned about poor cell phone service, it might help to complain to the local wireless carriers. However, most readers who contact Computerworld say that process is not productive. We're hearing from the ones who haven't had much success.

The FCC has a formal complaint process that might help. It  includes filing a Form 2000B either online or by mail. There’s a “File a Consumer Complaint” tab on the www.fcc.gov home page on the right-hand column, which eventually leads to a “Billing, Privacy or Service Quality Complaint” page.   You have to be willing to describe your service problem with your number and carrier’s name. If you live where there’s no carrier, you might be out of luck but can call the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322).

To be sure, the FCC knows there are areas with wireless service problems and has taken proactive steps to address the more severe gaps in service in places such as Tribal Nations.

If you type a search for “Wireless service problems” on the home page, you are first directed to an FCC Encyclopedia entry that concerns “problems with long distance or wireless calling to rural areas.” (It's interesting to note that the referenced explanation is for wireless "calling" and not for data. ) That entry urges customers with problems to contact their carriers, or file a Form 2000B complaint.

It also notes that “carrier practices that lead to call completion failure and poor call quality may violate the Communications Act’s prohibition on unjust and unreasonable practices and violate a carrier’s obligations under the Act...”

But the FCC in its wisdom also added these words: “We recognize that there is still more to do be done—and will be doing more. We share the concern about this problem and its impact on rural consumers and businesses, and are dedicated to ensuring that all Americans receive high-quality services.”

Despite that wording mentioning “rural,” various FCC officials have acknowledged that gaps in wireless coverage extend beyond rural areas, something all too apparent to Computerworld readers. 

If you are totally frustrated by poor wireless service where you live or work, you can also email me (or add to comments below!) with your name and a description of the problem and how you've tried to address it.  I will summarize the emails I receive in a future blog. mhamblen@computerworld.com

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