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Susan Collins

Federal Help for Better Cell Phone Coverage in Maine
By Senator Susan M. Collins
Jun 21, 2007 - 6:05:20 PM

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Senator Susan Collins represents the State of Maine in the U.S. Senate.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Everett Flannery of Kennebec County recently met with me to discuss the challenges that Maine's inadequate network of cell phone towers poses for law enforcement. He was in Washington at the invitation of my colleague Senator Olympia Snowe to testify on this problem before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Anyone with a cell phone knows first hand the frustration of dropped calls and no service when traveling through parts of our state. But sometimes, as Sheriff Flannery described, the consequences are more serious.

The Sheriff's son, who is a paramedic in Somerset County, is often called on to stabilize accident victims before they are transported to the hospital. In many cases, he has found himself unable to call for medical assistance because he is out of cell phone range. Sometimes he has been forced to flag-down passing motorists to ask them to call for help from a house with a wireline telephone.

Last August, I was in Millinocket when I received an email message on my Blackberry telling me that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was trying to reach me with urgent news. I had to drive for 20 minutes until I reached a spot on a hill in Lincoln where I had sufficient coverage to call him. The Secretary wanted to brief me on the thwarted terrorist plot to blow up airliners en route from Great Britain to the United States.

Cell phone towers are expensive, and can cover only a limited area. Add Maine's hilly and sometimes mountainous terrain, and it is understandable that a signal can sometimes be hard to come by. But we have long recognized that it is essential that all Americans have access to the telephone network at an affordable price, even if they live in hard-to-serve rural areas. That is why we have a "Universal Service Fund" that helps support the cost of providing telephone service to high cost areas.

At the federal level, the Universal Service Fund has long been available to help cover the cost of providing traditional wireline phone service. More recently, the fund has also been used to support cell phone service as well. In fact, six of the 12 towers one phone company built in rural Maine last year were subsidized by the fund.

Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a cap on the funding that can be made available through the federal "Universal Service Fund" to support cell phone service. I believe such a cap would impede efforts to improve cell phone service in rural areas throughout the country. In a letter that I recently sent to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, I emphasized that a cap would have a disproportionate impact on Maine, where wireless phone companies serving high-cost rural areas of Maine could lose $2 million if the limitation goes through. These companies have told me that the loss of funding would likely force them to forego construction of five cell towers, sacrificing desperately needed coverage in hard-to-reach areas of our state.

We have grown more reliant on cell phones. In many urban areas of our country, cell phone coverage is crystal clear, and finding a signal is never an issue. But rural states like Maine will always be more expensive to serve and will lag behind without help. While I understand that the FCC is concerned that the Universal Service Fund is over-stretched and needs reform, I will continue to oppose a cap on Universal Service Funding for wireless carriers.

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