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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Interoperability within spectrum bands

Interoperability within the 600MHz band could improve roaming for smartphone and other cell phone users, but analysts like Nicoll worry that roaming across carriers really won't improve all that much in the future, even with LTE. That situation doesn't bode well rural locations where roaming to AT&T is already a concern.

"In the U.S., there's very little roaming and LTE is not necessarily improving the roaming situation," Nicoll says. "You have different LTE carriers on different bands, some at 1,800MHz and others at 700MHz." Of course, some smartphones will support multiple bands, but there is still the question as to how much carriers will charge to roam to another network -- assuming it's enabled at all.

Smaller carriers and T-Mobile and Sprint have already joined ranks to urge the FCC to support interoperability in the lower part of the 700MHz spectrum, something they believe the FCC may rule upon by this summer.

If the spectrum is not set up to be interoperable for all carriers and handsets then manufacturers will build handsets only for the spectrum bands controlled by the major carriers, say groups like the Interoperability Alliance, which represents many smaller carriers and consumer activists.

"There are many rural carriers that have been hampered in their efforts to deploy service because of the fractured handset ecosystem in the lower 700MHz," says Grant Spellmeyer, executive director of public policy for U.S. Cellular, a member of the Interoperability Alliance. "Enhanced wireless service in rural communities is a significant contributor to public safety and economic development."

What defines success?

For businesses in Wyoming County -- and places like it -- better wireless service remains a dream. Solutions seem years away, at the end of a complex variety of new small cell technologies and wireless funding initiatives.

"I'm not sure what defines success for wireless coverage," Nicoll says. "In a country as large as the U.S., I don't see how it's possible to provide service everywhere to everyone."

Nicoll feels that the FCC should look at Germany as a precedent for how to deal with underserved areas for expanding wireless. Regulators in Germany imposed a rural coverage stipulation in 2011 that said a certain percentage of rural areas had to have fast wireless service before cities could be provisioned with LTE.

But the U.S. is a much larger country and hasn't had the benefit of using a common spectrum band or requiring mandatory roaming as much of Europe has, Nicoll notes.

"Such a rule like Germany's in the U.S. would have raised a lot of protest by U.S. operators, but there is no incentive now to provide rural coverage in any sort of hurried timeframe by any of the operators," Nicoll argues. "Also, billions in [private and public] funds are available, but what percentage of the cost is for providing rural coverage is not explained."

The prospect of a 600MHz band auction in 2014 would seemingly help add more spectrum to address many wireless needs, including perhaps in rural areas, but Nicoll is not hopeful.

"There are so many hoops to jump through in the auction to be successful," Nicoll says. " I'm beginning to question whether an incentive auction will bring us wireless spectrum in the next few years or whether it will just be slow and convoluted and even useless."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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