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BASE REALIGNMENT IMPACT COMMITTEE: Report outlines need for better cell phone service

A recently completed report on the area's access to telecommunications found, not surprisingly, that many surrounding communities receive spotty to nonexistent cellular phone reception.

A recently completed report on the area's access to telecommunications found, not surprisingly, that many surrounding communities receive spotty to nonexistent cellular phone reception.

Results of the Grand Forks Broadband Connectivity Business Development Roadmap, commissioned by the Grand Forks Region Base Realignment Impact Committee, were presented to the City Council on Monday and will be shared with the Grand Forks County Commission today.

"You get off the interstate and suddenly you don't have cell phone service," said Paul DeWolfe, president of Missoula, Mont.-based Access Consulting, which compiled the study. "The farther you get from the city, the less service and less quality of service you have. That is typical of communities across the country."

The report covered Grand Forks, Nelson, Traill and Walsh counties in northeastern North Dakota and Polk County in Minnesota. It consisted of interviews with local officials, market research and inquiries to service providers. It focused in large part on issues affecting Larimore, Northwood and Hatton, N.D., three communities near Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Initially focused primarily on broadband Internet access, the study was expanded to include cell phone and cable TV service and public safety communications following initial interviews with local officials.


Broadband access

The report found that many of the communities studied have at least two providers of broadband Internet service. According to the report, issues with broadband availability exist but are centered on mostly remote areas located more than three miles from cities and towns with service.

"We were pleasantly pleased to find out there were more providers in rural areas than we had anticipated," DeWolfe said.

DeWolfe said that the local area is better off compared to other areas his firm has studied. A previous report compiled by Access Consulting found several counties in north central Idaho without any broadband access, even in small towns.

"We discovered that our region was in better shape than we thought it was," BRIC coordinator Diane Blair said. "Most of the communities had at least one source of broadband service. When it came to other telecommunications and cell phone service, there were more gaps."

The report said that sparsely-populated states like North Dakota have seen a strong increase in cell phone service availability in more densely-populated areas, but still suffer from erratic coverage in rural areas away from major highways.

"Those issues are not uncommon in rural areas or small towns," DeWolfe said. "Cellular service in rural areas is a problem nationwide."

DeWolfe said cell phone providers are hesitant to add cell phone towers, which can cost up to $1 million to build and maintain, in remote areas with few residents.


"The farther you get from regional population centers, the less economic incentive there is to provide service," DeWolfe said.

Verizon spokesperson Karen Smith said the company builds new cell phone transmission sites based on where capacity is needed to meet overall network demand and tracks coverage needs based on testers driving to different locations, reports from customers, sales people and network engineers.

According to the report, Verizon recently committed to building a permanent cell phone tower in Northwood to replace a temporary tower brought in after tornado damage disrupted telephone service in the area in August.

Smith said the company activated 20 new cell phone transmission sites in North Dakota last year and has invested more than $23 million in new cell phone towers and network improvements so far this year.

Grants and loans

The study recommends that local communities and municipalities take advantage of a variety of available grants, loans, programs and initiatives aimed at improving rural telecommunications. It also recommends detailing coverage shortcomings and encouraging providers to improve coverage.

DeWolfe said most towers can be co-located or used for multiple forms of telecommunications, from cell phone and broadband to public safety radio. He said local communities also could equip tall buildings or structures, such as water towers, for use as transmission towers.

The study found that public safety communications has been improved greatly by the installation of a new VHF digital public safety radio voice network by the city of Grand Forks and Grand Forks and Polk counties. The network for radio communications between police, fire department, emergency medical services and other governmental agencies is supported by repeater sites in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Larimore.


According to the report, the new system has helped fill some holes in coverage and adding additional towers and repeater locations could expand the system to eventually cover the entire study area.

Schuster reports on business. Reach him at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or rschuster@gfherald.com , or view his business blog at www.areavoices.com/bizbuzz .

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