No bars, no deal

BRIDGEPORT, Ala. - Leon Dave says the owners of a shoe store and motorcycle shop both liked the idea of opening stores in his small North Alabama town.

That is, until they looked at their cell phones and decided that no bars meant no deal.

"They found out we didn't have any service, so they went somewhere else," said Dave, a city councilman in Bridgeport. "We feel like we're getting left out."

Dave and other city leaders say Bridgeport's economic development is falling behind simply because it's tough to find a solid cell signal around town.

Councilman Barry Hughes said there are 15 or 20 spots around Bridgeport where signals are strong, but cell phones don't work in 80 percent of the town.

"It's a real problem for us here," he said. "Who would want to locate or do a business in an area where you don't get service? It's affecting our whole town."

Steve Berry, CEO of the Washington-based Rural Cellular Association, said Bridgeport's frustrations are valid, and the same thing is happening in sparsely populated areas nationwide.

"There's a lot of issues that pile up to the disadvantage of a small town like Bridgeport," he said. "The town sort of finds itself in the crucible of a much bigger issue that's going on in Washington, D.C."

There are coverage gaps nationwide where large cellular companies have decided it's not profitable to build towers, Berry said. It's tough for small companies to come in and fill those gaps - as they did with landline phones - because their phones won't work with the larger networks outside their small areas.

"You have to have enough users to fund the network," he said.

Sue Sperry, AT&T's spokeswoman for Alabama, said her map shows holes in the network around Bridgeport, particularly on the north and west sides of town. Officially, the company reports "moderate coverage" around the city.

"We have coverage gaps; there are no doubts," Sperry said.

But, she said, things should get better if AT&T's pending merger with T-Mobile is approved. The merger would give AT&T more space on the radio spectrum, allowing it to upgrade towers with a new system that would cover 95 percent of Alabama's population, she said.

Sperry said she was glad the Bridgeport officials had spoken up, and she promised to get someone from the company's external affairs department to contact them.

"We talk to local officials all the time, and a lot of the discussions we have are with smaller areas that are trying to grow," she said. "People who live in rural areas, they want the same kind of speed and services as the people in the big cities."

Attempts to reach regional officials of Verizon and Sprint were unsuccessful last week.

Berry said the Federal Communications Commission should make cellular companies move toward systems in which every phone works on every tower, no matter the network.

But that's not likely to happen anytime soon, because opponents argue that sharing towers would take away companies' incentive to expand and forfeit the money industry leaders have spent to gain commercial advantages.

In the meantime, Berry said, officials in Bridgeport should contact the carriers and offer city cell contracts to any provider that gives reliable service. That would give a cell company some guaranteed customers before it brought its system online.

"They do have a few tools in their toolbox where they can attract a wireless provider," Berry said.

If wireless data networks expand, Berry envisions a time in the near future when farmers could upload GPS-specific crop data straight from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or other agencies.

"But in order to do that, you need access to the rest of the world," he said. "You don't get that from your landline or sitting at your computer in the barn."