Fresh Ideas: Rural counties deserve dependable phone service
This month’s land line telephone bill for service in Baker delivered a seemingly uplifting message from AT&T: “A simple thanks. Thank you for being an AT&T customer. We appreciate your loyalty. You have our gratitude and we’re committed to providing you with the value, service and experience you deserve.” What do rural Nevada customers deserve?
No telephone service. On Aug. 2, the Nevada Public Utility Commission considers a petition by AT&T to no longer be the “carrier of last resort” for much of rural Nevada, including Baker, located near the Utah border in White Pine County. The filing seeks to abandon all or parts of service for Nevada’s 17 counties including nearly all of White Pine County. AT&T asserts at least two cell phone carriers now serve every part of their land line territory. At first glance, it almost makes sense. After all, isn’t everything going wireless and digital?
In rural Nevada, not so fast. Many parts of rural Nevada have undependable cell phone service. In Baker, we’ve had a cell tower and service for only two years, with glitches and outages periodically. Like other parts of rural Nevada, our Internet service is also sketchy. The Baker school was without phone service multiple times last school year when their Internet-dependent phone system did not function. Sounds like an area that still needs land line phones which work in emergencies, without power.
The AT&T filing concerns Kevin Hayes, president of Arizona Nevada Tower Corporation, based in Las Vegas and serving rural Nevada. He knows cell phone coverage in rural Nevada isn’t ubiquitous. Ironically, when I spoke to him on his cell phone in Las Vegas, he had to walk outside to get a good signal.
“There will be some people left with no reliable communications capabilities whatsoever,” said Hayes. “It is a public safety issue.”
Dumping the obligation to serve rural Nevada has serious implications for public health and safety. Yes, cell phones can punch 911 and be routed locally. But 911 calls made through the Internet, know as Voice over Internet Protocol or VOIP, don’t identify the location. Yanking out the land lines puts the elderly, disabled, and those on fixed or low income at risk. Cell phones are gizmos to many older folks, gadgets too complicated to figure out. In an emergency, they’re not dependable for the elderly.
Tamera Brown works for the Nevada Small Business Development Center in Ely as a business adviser. She’s experienced firsthand the challenges of depending on cell phones for communications and Internet hot spots. Her view? AT&T’s action is “making it harder for small communities in Nevada to attract new businesses and families.”
A hodgepodge of cell phone carriers, AT&T asserts, can provide dependable service for rural Nevada instead of AT&T’s hard wired telephone infrastructure. The application includes coverage maps of where the 16 wireless companies claim to serve. AT&T even includes OnStar, the company who finds your car in an emergency, as a viable substitute for a land line. The PUC must ground-truth the coverage maps of the 16 carriers. Those of us on the ground know just because it’s on the map doesn’t mean you can make a call.
The Nevada Public Utility Commission should deny AT&T’s request now. Instead the PUC should require the corporation to implement a phased, multi-year withdrawal plan which gives cell service providers, consumers, rural communities and those who serve them sufficient time to figure out how essential services, public safety and community needs would be met without land lines.
AT&T and PUC: Here’s what AT&T customers deserve: Dependable consistent phone and Internet service. They don’t deserve to be dropped like a cell phone call and left without basic communications which have been a mainstay of rural commerce and community for decades.
Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.