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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?

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."

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.


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