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Why some U.S. homes and businesses still don't have cellular service

Can U.S. regulators and private carriers beef up cell phone service to under-served rural areas?

April 3, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - If you've ever driven along a major U.S. interstate and found you had no wireless reception for miles, you are not alone. Even today, there are entire areas of the United States where people live and work without reliable wireless reception.

Take, for example, Wyoming County in West Virginia coal country. Its residents and businesses are struggling to promote economic growth while putting up with spotty, slow or even nonexistent cellular voice and data service.

The county sits at the southern edge of the state, about 340 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. Half the children in this county of 24,000 people live below the poverty line and the lifeblood coal industry has been sagging for 18 months.

Still, county officials are optimistic: Two elementary schools and a federal prison are being built, and there's a new Arby's in Pineville, the county seat. The county has set up the John D. Rockefeller Industrial Park, eight miles from Pineville, to attract new businesses. Christy Laxton, the top economic development official for Wyoming County, sees a promising future, even though sub-par cellular service thwarts the county's efforts.

"Things are happening in Wyoming [County], but ... new businesses [have] to face the challenge and expense of finding Internet service and cellular," Laxton says.

"Unless you are within the city limits of Mullens, Pineville and Oceana, you likely don't have cell service at all, much less 3G cellular," she adds. "We have pretty good Internet service covering the county, but cell service is lacking tremendously and is the number one complaint" of area residents and companies. She calls it "our most lacking infrastructure," even ahead of power and public water and sewer facilities.

This map shows the percentage of population in each state of the U.S. that doesn't have access to at least 3G voice and data services. It uses FCC coverage data from September 2012 and U.S. Census Bureau population data from 2010. Map and data analysis by Sharon Machlis using Fusion Tables.

As a result, new business executives arriving in the county often find that their mobile phones are unworkable -- meaning they might need to switch carriers or find other workarounds if they decide to set up shop. "It's pretty much like running against a concrete wall," Laxton says, calling the cellular deficiencies a "10" on the bad end of the frustration scale.

For example, Gas Field Services has built a field office in Wyoming County's industrial park, but satellite communications are unreliable and cellular communications are wanting from both AT&T and Verizon.

"We have used AT&T and Verizon and neither is of any account. Service from the top of the mountain might work but not other places," says Zachery Reed, vice president of operations for Gas Field Services, which needs constant communications with work crews in the mountains. "We're five to 10 years behind other businesses. We won't expand or build more here because of the lack of communications." (The company's administrative offices are far away in Rosedale, Va., where there are five telecom providers and ample communications.)

Gas Field Services employs about 100 people, but doesn't even operate a website because communications are so poor. Satellite has proven unusable on cloud and rainy days, according to Reed, and a T1 wired Ethernet connection to the field office would be too expensive. Reed said that Internet connections have improved slightly because Shentel (Shenandoah Telecommunications) recently ran a wired connection to a location near the office park that allows Gas Field Services to connect to via Wi-Fi routers.

"The big wireless carriers always say, 'Well, it's just West Virginia and the mountains. There's nothing we can do,' and that's been the story for five years," Reed says. "I know it's expensive to build a cell tower or making other improvements, but not doing so definitely hurts West Virginia."

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An historical perspective

Since the creation of the telephone, the problem of providing better communications service to underserved rural markets has always come down to market dynamics. Carriers want to build their expensive networks in regions with the most customers. In many places, the lack of economic incentives leaves the nation's small rural carriers to scrape together partnerships for spectrum and service.

Chris Nicoll, an analyst at Analysys Mason, argues that the nation's wireless networks are suffering from entrenched historical problems that are difficult to fix. "The gaps in wireless coverage and the inertia in filling them comes from the way the licenses were originally awarded decades ago, which was done market by market, " Nicoll notes.

In Europe, by comparison, an entire country was put up for a wireless license at the same time. "I'm not saying we ever should have gone to a national license, since the way it was done allowed smaller companies to bid," Nicoll says. "But as a result, our wireless coverage is so fragmented that it's impossible to have a comprehensive strategy."

At the same time, Nicoll says, the U.S. has created a wireless market duopoly dominated by AT&T and Verizon, which are each twice the size of either Sprint or T-Mobile and which control most of the wired infrastructure. "There's a lot of wireless competition in the U.S., but not ... at the top four where you have Verizon and AT&T and then much smaller Sprint and T-Mobile. When you step back and look at the bigger picture, there's no ability to acquire spectrum other than by acquiring other operators."

Adding to the problem is that fact that, for many communities around the country, building more cell towers can be controversial -- especially after the FCC, in 2010, approved rules designed to speed up the review process of towers in towns and counties, a measure supported by wireless carriers and tower construction companies.

Some opponents say new cell towers, built at an average cost of $200,000, will be an eyesore and spoil the appearance of a pristine mountainside or forest, or add clutter to an urban environment. For example, in January 2013, residents in New Ulm, Minn., said a proposed 120-foot LTE tower on the grounds of Martin Luther College would devalue their property, and opposed alternatives that included a mono-pole design or a "mono-pine," designed to look like a green pine tree.

In addition, communities are sometimes concerned that the electro-magnetic field (EMF) near a cell tower could pose health hazards, not dissimilar to the way some health advocates worry about constant use of a cell phone held close to the head. In either case, the cellular industry staunchly argues that there is insufficient evidence of health problems.

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