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.
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.
One carrier might not be enough
One concern for many companies hoping to expand or set up operations in a relatively rural area or low-population county like Wyoming County is that even if there is at least a single cell provider, roaming agreements with other carriers aren't in place. Or if there's a roaming agreement between carriers, it usually involves additional fees and costs for the users who need to roam over that partner's wireless network.
In Wyoming County, the only service provider is AT&T, which runs on the GSM standard. As a result, customers who use Sprint or Verizon Wireless (which are based on CDMA) can't roam to AT&T. "People who have Sprint can't even get service," Laxton notes.
Laxton recalls how she was delighted to be able to bring two young AmeriCorps Vista workers to her agency to work on economic development planning, but neither had an AT&T cell phone, which meant they couldn't use their existing phones and had to buy AT&T phones and contracts, requiring new phone numbers and added expense.
She isn't critical of AT&T, which sells residents and businesses small indoor microcell devices to connect to the Internet wirelessly if they can't get wired service. There are also wireless boosters available for cars driven in the county, "but it has to be over AT&T cell service and that can still be spotty," she says. Even satellite service to the county's industrial park hasn't been practical.