FCC ruling may pave way for better cell coverage in rural America

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2014 - A decision by the Federal Communications Commission may further efforts to bridge the gap between urban and rural America.

The FCC unanimously voted on Friday to adopt a report and order that it says will “promote deployment of the wireless infrastructure necessary to provide the public with ubiquitous, advanced wireless broadband services,” the commission said in a release.

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The order clarifies several statutory limitations on state and local government authority to review wireless infrastructure siting applications. Simply speaking, this means local entities will have to be more compliant with efforts from wireless companies seeking to add or improve wireless coverage.

Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of PCIA - the Wireless Infrastructure Association, said health and aesthetic concerns are examples of reasons some communities fight changes to rural cell service.

“Local communities that want broadband need to cooperate with companies that are willing to invest in those communities,” Adelstein said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “There really is a need to encourage that investment and not discourage it, so those rural communities that open their arms and go out of their way to court that investment are finding that they're much more successful in getting broadband to their citizens.”

Adelstein said companies that are willing to invest in wireless infrastructure typically are doing so on a budget, so a community that uses regulatory roadblocks to stop the creation or improvement of their wireless signal will simply be passed over for a more receptive community.

 “We're planning to work closely with (communities) to develop best practices and model ordinances to help them help themselves and help them get out of their own way of allowing their citizens to have broadband service they so urgently want,” Adelstein said.

More and more people - including residents of rural communities - are making the move away from the traditional landline. To some, it's the monthly cost of the service; to others it's simply unneeded because the area's cell service is good enough to make all necessary phone calls.

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Landlines are also becoming unnecessary because of widespread cell phone ownership - recent Pew research says 91 percent of American adults own a cell phone. Outside of settled cities and towns, it can also be expensive to add a phone line to the construction of a new home because phone lines have to be dug to the building site if a home has never been in that specific area. The FCC said the action taken today will be helpful to assist wireless customers in urban and rural settings across the country.

“Taken together, these steps lay the groundwork necessary for delivering more wireless capacity in more locations to consumers throughout the United States,” the FCC said in its release.

Adelstein said demand for wireless service is unlikely to decline, so infrastructure must improve.

“People in rural and urban areas alike are demanding more and more wireless data over their smart phones or other wireless devices. Agriculture applications are exploding,” Adelstein said, pointing to recent educational efforts from PCIA and John Deere. “(Producers) need wireless broadband to take full advantage of (precision agriculture) capabilities and to improve agricultural production.”

While the FCC's efforts to ease the construction and improvement of infrastructure will help, Adelstein said this is no “silver bullet.” He said it will require working with wireless companies, local municipalities, wireless customers, and others to achieve better wireless broadband signals for more sparsely populated areas.

“This will help, but it's going to take more than this,” Adelstein said, adding that agricultural applications and increased wireless use in rural America will help companies “find the business case that works to build out [wireless infrastructure] in rural America.”

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