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Cell phone coverage holes hurt public safety

Mobile coverage in rural areas could get worse before it gets better, leaving vulnerable many who rely on cell phones during emergencies.

This article is the last in a three-part series: Wednesday's story offered tech tips for wilderness survival while Thursday's took a look at emerging technologies in car safety. And you can click here for information on how to help the James Kim family.

While most U.S. cities are blanketed with advanced cell phone service at least four times over, huge patches of rural America still don't have cell phone coverage. What's more, the problem could get worse before it gets better when rules requiring carriers to offer older, analog service expire early in 2008.

The Federal Communications Commission in 2002 gave the mobile phone industry five years to transition their networks from analog technology to digital technology. Starting in February 2008, cell phone companies will no longer be required to offer analog service.

Cell phone operators have made tremendous strides in their network deployments, providing more than 90 percent of the more than 220 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S. with digital service, according to the CTIA, an industry trade group. But economic realities have meant that some remote areas of the country that have only analog service today may not have any service until carriers can fully upgrade their networks to digital technology.

The problem is that digital technology isn't everywhere. So it's not a choice between digital and analog for some people. It's a choice between analog and nothing.
--Tony Clark, president, North Dakota Public Service Commission

Concerns about this issue have become increasingly acute because Americans are relying more than ever on their cell phones. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, roughly 29 percent of people who bought a cell phone in the past year said they did so for emergencies. Unfortunately, lack of cell phone coverage in some of the remotest places in the country can make these devices about as useful as a paperweight.

While only a quarter of the U.S. population lives in a rural area, roughly 75 percent of our country's geography is rural. Advocates for improving rural cell phone coverage say that the issue should concern not only rural residents, but everyone in the country.

Take the case of the late CNET editor James Kim and his family, who were lost in the Oregon wilderness for more than a week. The Kims were from San Francisco, a city where there are multiple operators offering mobile service. But on a vacation to the Pacific Northwest over the Thanksgiving holiday, the family accidentally found itself on a deserted road, miles from Interstate 5, in bad weather with little to no cell phone coverage.

Fortunately for Kati Kim and her two small children, a two-second cell phone connection that delivered a text message to the Kims' phone was enough to help engineers and rescue teams locate the family's stranded car. But for James Kim, who after a week of waiting left his family to seek help, the rescue came too late. He was found dead two days after his family had been rescued.

A national issue
Tragedies such as this one could be avoided if cell phone coverage in remote areas were better, say experts.

"Cell phone coverage is not just a rural issue, but a national issue," said Tony Clark, president of the North Dakota Public Service Commission. "A trucker from Chicago riding through my state during a blizzard has as much interest in ubiquitous cell phone coverage as someone who lives locally year-round."

The expiration, or "sunsetting," of the requirement to provide analog service, which allows cell phone users from any network to roam onto any other carrier's analog network, could exacerbate this problem. In addition to allowing roaming between networks, analog service also transmits over greater distances than most digital technology. As a result, mobile operators have been able to offer service over larger stretches of geography, such as in the Appalachian Mountains and over the entire Gulf of Mexico.

But analog is not perfect. It uses the wireless spectrum very inefficiently. And it is not capable of providing enhanced 911 (E911) services that would allow emergency operators to get location and phone number information automatically when a 911 call is received.

By contrast, digital mobile technology uses spectrum much more efficiently, allowing operators to offer more advanced services such as e-mail, text messaging, video and music. It uses less power, so devices are smaller and batteries last longer. It's also capable of providing location information to E911 operators.

"There's no question that digital is the better technology," Clark said. "And in a perfect world it would be digital all the way. But the problem is that digital technology isn't everywhere. So it's not a choice between digital and analog for some people. It's a choice between analog and nothing."

CTIA officials, who represent cell phone operators, said that carriers recognize their own limitations. And even though some may cut off their analog service, many will likely maintain those services in rural regions to make sure customers have coverage.

"The FCC is not requiring that analog goes away," said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA. "It just doesn't require carriers to offer it after February 2008. I'm sure in some rural areas where that's all that's available, carriers will offer analog. The last thing a carrier wants is to lose a customer."

So why haven't carriers been able to fill in the coverage gaps left from retiring their old analog service or expand service to rural areas that have never had coverage? The answer comes down to economics. A single cell phone tower can cost between $500,000 and $1 million to deploy, and in many rural areas there aren't enough subscribers to pay for the up-front cost of building a new tower.

"Every one of our carriers is trying to cover these rural areas as quickly as they can," said Clay Dover, the incoming executive director of the Rural Cellular Association in 2007. "But without the population density, it's costly. So it makes sense to start rollouts in areas where there are more people."

I think we are victims of our own success. The technology has become extremely important to consumers over the past few years and people depend on it. But we have to remember that this is a relatively young industry, and we're still building networks.
--Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs, CTIA

A federal government program known as the Universal Service Fund has helped provide some cash for rural network construction. And it will likely continue to help operators looking to serve sparsely populated regions of the country. The program is funded by phone companies, which pay a fee based on the percentage of interstate telecommunications services that their customers use. Most operators pass on the charges to consumers.

Rural operators can also apply for low-interest loans from the Rural Utilities Service, a development agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Funding for these loans will likely be debated next year, when Congress reauthorizes the Farm Bill.

The FCC also can encourage carriers to expand into rural areas through the allocation of new spectrum. For example, the 700MHz band of spectrum, now used for analog television, will become available for auction in 2007 in anticipation of a mandated conversion from analog to digital transmissions by all TV stations in the country. This spectrum, which travels up to three times farther than 1.9GHz cellular frequencies, could be ideal for use in rural areas.

One way to promote rural-area use of some of the spectrum would be to offer the licenses in smaller geographical blocks. This would encourage bidders who are interested in serving these specific rural regions to bid on the spectrum. It would also likely reduce the cost of the licenses, allowing smaller players--often the companies already serving rural areas--to be able to afford the price.

But even if carriers can get access to the capital to upgrade and expand their coverage, they still must get public approval for erecting new towers. Often they face resistance from community groups or from environmentalists. The FCC is currently accepting comments for new rules it may impose to protect migratory birds. These and other concerns are legitimate, and have to be balanced with the need to improve coverage, experts say.

Some companies are thinking of alternative ways to provide remote regions with wireless service. For example, a company called Space Data uses a balloon-borne wireless network based on standard technology from Motorola that can operate both on a standalone basis and as an extension of existing terrestrial wireless networks.

New rules from the FCC that allow satellite operators to use their spectrum to also provide terrestrial services could help rural regions. Satellite communications provider TerreStar Networks plans to become the first company to offer a mobile satellite and terrestrial communications network. The company's first satellite, currently under development and construction, is scheduled for launch in November 2007.

Guttman-McCabe of CTIA said business models for these new technologies have yet to be proven, but he believes that new-technology companies could partner with cell phone operators to eventually reach the goal of covering the entire country with some kind of mobile service.

"As an industry I think we are victims of our own success," he said. "The technology has become extremely important to consumers over the past few years and people depend on it. But we have to remember that this is a relatively young industry, and we're still building networks."