Will ring tones sound in Ancram?

ANYONE WHO’S VENTURED east of Claverack knows that darkness lurks there. This isn’t a metaphorical judgment on the far side of the Taconic State Parkway; it’s a fact. Along the highway and in many parts of the surrounding communities, cell phones might as well be pet rocks.

Engineers sometimes refer to places with no mobile phone service as “dark areas,” and folks familiar with this region know that the cell phone Twilight Zone along the Taconic extends north from the Columbia County line until you approach Chatham. Some people may welcome electronic isolation, but this technology has become an essential tool of life around the world, and almost nothing holds back its advance… except money.

Big communications companies like AT&T have built and upgraded their mobile phone networks in heavily populated places while ignoring rural communities, because fewer people mean less profit. That policy has relegated towns like Ancram, Copake, Gallatin and Taghkanic to a kind of second class citizenship when it comes to wireless communication. The towns couldn’t do much about it, either, because the federal government regulates wireless communications, and Columbia County didn’t have the political clout to change company policies.

But times have changed politically and technologically. President Obama has made access to high-speed Internet access one of the priorities of his economic stimulus package. And then there’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Granted, she lives in Greenport, on the county’s west coast, where cell service abounds. But she’s undoubtedly had a few moments of frustration trying to communicate with staff or constituents only to confront the “no bars” symbol on her phone screen, meaning no service is available.

Ancram resident Bob Roth deserves high praise for doing much of the legwork in his community, finding cell tower sites, talking to corporate people and paving the way for mobile phone service in his community. But for all his efforts, it’s likely the mobile phone companies might still have dismissed this region as not worth the effort if Ms. Gillibrand had not entered the picture. Why else would an AT&T manager have told a recent meeting in Ancram that the president of his company had instructed him to get cell phone service working in the town?

This promises to improve things for the folks who live or travel through the southeastern part of the county. But consider the larger implications. Should raw political power determine who gets service and who goes without? And what about the market: Shouldn’t a capitalist system like ours leave it up to market forces to sort out this sort of problem? 

In theory, the market argument sounds good. But the market created the barriers that block access to mobile phone service in Ancram and nearby towns. And based on public enthusiasm for the stimulus bill, there seems to be wide support for the notion that the national interest is best served when all citizens have the option of using vital technological tools.

But that leaves open the question of what happens to rural communities that don’t have a senator interested enough to get the attention of corporation presidents. At the very least, the lack of mobile communications in rural areas should spur Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to revisit mobile phone regulations with an eye toward accelerating the delivery of those services to communities that lack them.

During the Great Depression the federal government found that many small communities were being left off the electric power grid, so at the request of President Roosevelt, Congress created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which allowed farm collectives to start their own power companies. The program quickly made electric service available to just about everyone who wanted it.

The  success of the REA suggests that what the cell phone market needs now is more competition. That’s something the government could foster by authorizing communities to contract for their own cell services if the big players overlook them.

The issues are complex, but cell phone service is just one of many new technologies, like high-speed Internet access, that rural communities may not receive unless government gives them more leverage than the stimulus package provides. Ms. Gillibrand should take this episode to heart and press for practical ways all rural communities can get the tools they need before the future passes them by.

 

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