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?

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An important issue

The causes behind Wyoming County's cellular service problems are complex, but serve as a microcosm of what's happening in many rural areas across the U.S. For businesses trying to locate in or near such areas, acquiring cellular communications can be frustrating, expensive and confusing.

In a report issued in August 2012, the FCC stated that 19 million Americans -- about 6% of the total population of 320 million -- were not served by broadband. For example, FCC data indicated that almost 93% of Wyoming County's population was not served by a minimum of 3G wireless service. (3G is defined by the FCC (PDF) as being less than 200Kbps on downloads and 50Kbps on uploads; as a comparison, most carriers describe 4G LTE as providing 10Mbps for downloads and 4Mbps for uploads.)

And they are not the worst off. Fifteen other counties (with smaller populations) had less access to wireless service than Wyoming County, according to the FCC's data. Three counties in Alaska, Hawaii and Nebraska, each with fewer than 1,000 residents, were listed at 100% without 3G or faster service.

[The four largest U.S. carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless -- all have ambitious plans to grow their wireless networks in coming years. But do these plans include those who are currently under-served? We look at each company in our article Carrier solutions for areas without 3G/4G]

Wireless as a catalyst for economic growth

Wyoming County's Christy Laxton isn't the only one who ties the economic well-being of a location to its cellular service. The FCC and other federal officials have focused on expanding wireless service as an engine for economic growth and development.

"Cellular coverage in outlying rural areas is a big deal to a lot of companies," including branch offices of large corporations such as mining, manufacturing and even retail, says Bill Menezes, an analyst at Gartner (who spoke as an individual). "That's what's so crazy about wireless. You may have coverage for a highway or a secondary road, but in the valley there's nothing."

According to Menezes, the attitude of state and federal regulators and carriers has been, for many years, "if you live out with the moose, you have to put up with what goes along with that." However, that's changing. "Government today seems to be less about setting up communications lifelines and universal service as it was in the 1930s, and more about economic development with [wired and wireless] broadband in areas where the economy may be slow or depressed," Menezes says.

The FCC's Connect America Fund (CAF), which was created in November 2011, offers a wide set of incentives and goals for building wired and wireless networks in the most remote areas of the nation. It encourages eligible carriers -- picked through auctions and other means -- to build out those networks by providing $4.5 billion annually, through 2017. It is funded by Universal Service Fund fees paid by telecom customers via their monthly bills.

When the CAF was first announced, the FCC said it would bring broadband communications to all 19 million underserved Americans by 2020. According to the commission document, "The CAF will help make broadband available in homes, businesses and community anchor institutions in areas that do not, or would not otherwise, have broadband, including mobile voice and broadband networks in areas that do not or would not otherwise have mobile service."

Of the annual $4.5 billion funding, about $900 million was originally reserved for a portion of the CAF called the Mobility Fund, designed to improve wireless service, mainly along highways.

Last fall's phase 1 Mobility Fund auction will result in coverage of dead zones on 83,000 road miles -- where millions of Americans live, work or travel -- over three years. (An FCC spokesman called this a "resounding success.") Phase 2 of the Mobility Fund will beef up mobile services with new cell towers and networks using $500 million annually, while the FCC is also providing $50 million in a one-time support for wireless improvements on Tribal Lands.

This FCC map shows the areas identified as eligible for Mobility Fund Phase 1 support as of September 2012. Courtesy Federal Communications Commission

However, an FCC auction last fall only used half of the $300 million allocated under Phase 1 (the rest will be allocated under Phase 2), even though about 800 contractors nationwide won jobs to fill gaps in wireless coverage -- work that is beginning this spring.

"If you believe in the concept of universal service, the government needs to take more steps to require or subsidize that mobile wireless footprint," says Gartner's Menezes.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed new ideas on ways to expand wireless coverage, including using part of the 600MHz band for more public Wi-Fi. A separate set of broadband acceleration initiatives announced in January makes it easier to upgrade cell towers and provide portable cellular antennas for major public events, like the presidential inauguration.

One carrier might not be enough

One concern for many companies hoping to expand or set up operations in a relatively rural area or low-population county like Wyoming County is that even if there is at least a single cell provider, roaming agreements with other carriers aren't in place. Or if there's a roaming agreement between carriers, it usually involves additional fees and costs for the users who need to roam over that partner's wireless network.

In Wyoming County, the only service provider is AT&T, which runs on the GSM standard. As a result, customers who use Sprint or Verizon Wireless (which are based on CDMA) can't roam to AT&T. "People who have Sprint can't even get service," Laxton notes.

Laxton recalls how she was delighted to be able to bring two young AmeriCorps Vista workers to her agency to work on economic development planning, but neither had an AT&T cell phone, which meant they couldn't use their existing phones and had to buy AT&T phones and contracts, requiring new phone numbers and added expense.

She isn't critical of AT&T, which sells residents and businesses small indoor microcell devices to connect to the Internet wirelessly if they can't get wired service. There are also wireless boosters available for cars driven in the county, "but it has to be over AT&T cell service and that can still be spotty," she says. Even satellite service to the county's industrial park hasn't been practical.

AT&T says in a statement to Computerworld that it recently launched a mobile Internet network in Oceana in Wyoming County to serve customers in the area as part of its continuing investment in network access across the nation "with a focus on improving our mobile broadband coverage and overall network performance for all customers."

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