Mobile Future

That Dog Won’t Hunt

There’s an important proceeding going on at the Federal Communications Commission that has the potential to affect all of us living outside major urban centers.  This proceeding will determine the rules that govern participation in the upcoming “incentive spectrum auction.”

Auction of the airwaves is vital to those of us out here in rural and small town America because, along with everyone else in America, we are using more wireless bandwidth than ever as our smartphones and tablets transfer video/photo files, and deliver Netflix, Facebook, Siri, map apps, etc.  More spectrum means more bandwidth for such communications and the FCC is planning to auction some particularly valuable spectrum in an effort to raise money for the government and get spectrum into the hands of carriers who can deploy it effectively.

As the CEO of American Rural, an organization committed to policies that enhance rural and small town prosperity, I often travel to remote communities scattered throughout the U.S.  I’m keenly aware of how small town residents are using their mobile devices to conduct business, improve healthcare and education, and care for their families.

That’s why a recent study by Dr. Anna-Maria Kovacs, a Visiting Senior Policy Scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy, is so important.  Dr. Kovacs found that the revenue potential for a wireless carrier in a major urban center is $248,000 per square mile of service.    In the least densely populated areas of the U.S. the potential revenue per square mile drops as low as $262 per square mile.   Policymakers at the FCC who ignore these financial facts put remote America at risk unnecessarily.

Dr. Kovacs’ study also found that, of the big four national mobile phone carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile),  AT&T and Verizon have committed to bringing LTE (super-fast wireless) to almost 100% of the U.S., while Sprint and T-Mobile have only committed to bringing LTE to just 36% of the landmass of our Nation.  Sprint and T-Mobile have also been pretty clear about their intent to ignore the 19.6% of the U.S. population that lives in the lowest density areas (about 60 million people).  Perhaps it’s a financial decision for them.   The reasons, however, won’t be of much consequence if rural and small town Americans face decreased LTE deployment or increased costs for their mobile services; both of which are possibilities if the FCC adopts wrongheaded spectrum auction policies.

In my backyard in Whitefish, MT, I’ve seen Dr. Kovacs’ data in operation, which is why I know how important it is.  AT&T and Verizon are the only carriers here that have built out the mobile phone towers and infrastructure that support my smartphone use.

I use my smartphone and tablet daily for my business, like so many of my friends and neighbors across rural and small town America.  AT&T and Verizon have storefronts in our low density county (18 people per square mile).  So, not only are they local employers, they also allow me to connect via a national pricing plan that is the same as that offered to their urban customers who, notably, generate way more dollars per square mile than we do.

It’s not perfect; we still have plenty of dead spots that need coverage, but I’ve been able to build a life and career in a small town in a low density county as a result of the wireless technologies offered by AT&T and Verizon while Sprint and T-Mobile have been nowhere in sight.

And, while I’d love to see Sprint and T-Mobile come to town, it’s folly to believe that limiting AT&T or Verizon’s participation in the upcoming incentive spectrum auction – two companies already deploying infrastructure in low-density communities across our country –  will  help improve service to rural communities.    In fact, that dog just won’t hunt at all.

Recently, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who I know and admire, wrote in his blog post, “The incentive auction is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand the benefits of mobile wireless coverage and competition to consumers across the nation — particularly consumers in rural areas…”  He also pointed out that, “Spectrum below 1GHz — such as the incentive auction spectrum — has physical properties that increase the reach of mobile networks over long distances.”

I agree Mr. Chairman.  So, please don’t hamstring the participation of the only two national companies that have already proven their willingness to serve rural and small town America.  That would be foolhardy and we don’t much tolerate foolhardy out here.