"The big wireless carriers always say, 'Well, it's just West Virginia and the mountains. There's nothing we can do,' and that's been the story for five years," Reed says. "I know it's expensive to build a cell tower or making other improvements, but not doing so definitely hurts West Virginia."
An important issue
The causes behind Wyoming County's cellular service problems are complex, but serve as a microcosm of what's happening in many rural areas across the U.S. For businesses trying to locate in or near such areas, acquiring cellular communications can be frustrating, expensive and confusing.
In a report issued in August 2012, the FCC stated that 19 million Americans -- about 6 percent of the total population of 320 million -- were not served by broadband. For example, FCC data indicated that almost 93 percent of Wyoming County's population was not served by a minimum of 3G wireless service. (3G is defined by the FCC (PDF) as being less than 200Kbps on downloads and 50Kbps on uploads; as a comparison, most carriers describe 4G LTE as providing 10Mbps for downloads and 4Mbps for uploads.)
And they are not the worst off. Fifteen other counties (with smaller populations) had less access to wireless service than Wyoming County, according to the FCC's data. Three counties in Alaska, Hawaii and Nebraska, each with fewer than 1,000 residents, were listed at 100 percent without 3G or faster service.
[The four largest U.S. carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless -- all have ambitious plans to grow their wireless networks in coming years. But do these plans include those who are currently under-served? We look at each company in our article Carrier solutions for areas without 3G/4G]
Wireless as a catalyst for economic growth
Wyoming County's Christy Laxton isn't the only one who ties the economic well-being of a location to its cellular service. The FCC and other federal officials have focused on expanding wireless service as an engine for economic growth and development.
"Cellular coverage in outlying rural areas is a big deal to a lot of companies," including branch offices of large corporations such as mining, manufacturing and even retail, says Bill Menezes, an analyst at Gartner (who spoke as an individual). "That's what's so crazy about wireless. You may have coverage for a highway or a secondary road, but in the valley there's nothing."
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.