Cell phone study needs more data

The National Association of Counties project to map gaps and weaknesses in the country’s cell phone system is into its fourth month, but more data is needed before the association can report its findings to the Federal Communications Commission.

Although the data is being loaded into a publicly accessible site on the internet as it is acquired, interpreting it is challenging. The data is being managed by Measurement Lab at Princeton University and requires considerable expertise in database queries to acquire and sort. Jason Pyles, the GIS specialist with Buckeye Hills Regional Council, said he examined the data and the uploads for Washington County all show two locations, one in Marietta and the other in Belpre, suggesting that it is indicating tower locations rather than the location of the user.

Even determining the number and location of existing cell towers is more complicated than it might seem, he said.

“It’s one of those straightforward questions that has a really difficult answer,” he said.

FCC data includes licenses granted for communication towers more than 200 feet high but does not indicate the specific usage for each tower, which can vary from private radio communications operated by companies to television and radio broadcast and relay towers. The FCC data shows 75 such towers or licenses granted in Washington County, some of which are decommissioned. Transmission licenses specifically in the cellphone broadcast spectrum are held by seven licensees – AT&T, Verizon (two), Sprint (two), and Ntelos and West Virginia PCS Alliance, both of which have the same headquarter contact information.

The companies are wary of making their tower and facilities information public, citing safety and security concerns. In one extreme example of what can go wrong, two men in Alabama were arrested recently on charges that they cut down a large tower with the intent of selling the pieces as scrap metal. The towers and equipment can cost upwards of $250,000 to put up, and regular maintenance costs include security and occasional repairs for weather-related damage.

Telecommunications companies have found leasing towers from specialty firms attractive, with American Towers and Crown Castle being the dominant players in that market. American Towers has more than 40,000 towers in the U.S. with $1.8 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2019.

NACO executive director Arthur Scott said he’s pleased with the project so far.

“I could not be happier with the data so far,” he said. “By the end of the year, or October-November, we’ll have a good amount of data collected to do a meaningful material analysis.”

By the middle of May, he said, the app had been downloaded by 7,500 users who have conducted about 15,000 tests.

“We’re monitoring the geographic representation to see if we’re getting the spread we need,” he said. “So far, it’s been great coverage. There’s no place where we’re struggling to get samples. Shortly, we’ll be looking at a number of samples from different region to see if we need to do some direct marketing in specific places.”

In addition to availability, the app measures signal strength, which Pyles said was available in the published data.

“The speeds seem low, they’re below federal standards,” he said.

The question remains what can be done to cure any deficiencies the data finds.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said he has been pressuring the FCC.

“It is not only a federal issue, it is also a state and private sector issue…,” an emailed statement from Johnson read in part. “…so, there are multiple stakeholders. Last month I met with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, and we had a very candid discussion. I relayed directly to him some of the stories of those I represent that don’t have access to reliable broadband internet access at home, and I expressed my frustration at the lack of progress. This is 2019, and we live in a digitally connected world, and given the technology solutions available to us, lack of broadband access is unacceptable.”

Johnson said he’s ready to work on it.

“I reaffirmed to Chairman Pai that I’m willing to look at creative solutions and work with anyone to get this done,” he said.

TestIT app

• Download it for free from the App Store.

• Launch it from any location to determine broadband signal strength and send a report to the NACO database.

• The data is being compiled by Measurement Lab at Princeton University.

• Once enough data is compiled to identify gaps and weaknesses in the system, the findings will be presented to the FCC.

Source: Times research.

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