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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?

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.


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