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

Matt Hamblen | April 4, 2013
While large portions of the U.S. are looking forward to faster wireless broadband, some regions don't have even simple cell phone service. What is being done to help?

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.

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."


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