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Poor Service Could Be ‘Safety Issue’

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley hosted a meeting Feb. 22 to discuss wireless phone service in Yalobusha County.

By Jack Gurner

WATER VALLEY – The lack of cell phone service in some parts of Yalobusha County was the topic of a meeting at the Yalobusha County Court House Tuesday, Feb. 22.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley hosted the session as part of his “Connecting Rural North Mississippi” tour aimed at improving wireless telephone service in rural areas.

He told the crowd of about 60 people that he wanted to hear what the issues are with cell service in the county. “I can tell you I was going around seven bypass the other day on my way to Jackson and my call dropped,” Presley commented on his most recent experience in Yalobusha.

He added that all of the wireless phone companies who do business in Mississippi were invited to the meeting to hear directly from consumers. Those sending representatives were Cellular South, Sprint, T-mobile, and Verizon. AT&T was invited, according to Presley, but they have not attended any of the meetings he has held.

Presley emphasized that being connected to the world was just as important to rural families as those who live in more populace areas.     “Being able to use your cell phone in rural areas is just as important to rural families today as paved roads and running water was seventy years ago.”

He explained that wireless service providers and phone companies in Mississippi get more money from the Universal Service Fund than any other state. Mississippians only pay about $60 million annually into the fund and receive about $280 million. Presley estimated that cell phone companies get $100 million of that amount.

The money is provided to companies to build cell phone towers in rural areas. Presley acknowledged that the USF money had done a lot of good. “We wouldn’t have the coverage in Mississippi we have today if it weren’t for that fund.”

“It is very important those funds are spent where it benefits the public interest,” he said.

Toward that end, Presley said that he started the “Zap the Gap” program several years ago to improve service by taking complaints of poor service from consumers. The first year he received 1,453 responses – a number of which came from Yalobusha County.

Presley opened the meeting to comments and several of the attendees expressed their frustration at not being able to use their cell phone in their part of the county.

Sylva Rena volunteer firefighter Larry Lawler said that he and fellow volunteers needed to be able to contact the central dispatcher using their cell phones. But, they are unable to in much of their jurisdiction. “It’s not just a service issue,” he said. “It’s a safety issue.”

Much the same complaint about service on the east side of the county was voiced by a member of the Clear Springs volunteer fire department.

Several people asked what they could do if they weren’t getting service. Others in the audience suggested that they change cell phone companies. Presley added, “You have a choice as a consumer to go to another carrier.”

After fielding a number of additional questions and complaints about lack of service, Presley turned the floor over to representatives of the providers starting with Billy Weissinger, Network Manager for Cellular South.

Weissinger told the crowd that Cellular South was building new towers every year in Mississippi. “Everyday we are trying to fill the gaps.”

Bill Atkinson of Sprint in Atlanta told the crowd that he had done a lot of listening and would take what he had learned back to corporate headquarters.

Garnet Hanly, senior corporate counsel for T-Mobile from Washington D. C., said her company currently had an ETC (eligible telecommunications carrier) application pending before the Mississippi Public Service Commission.     “We are looking to expand coverage in Missis-sippi with particular focus in Water Valley within the next six to eight months.”

Roland Charles of Memphis, associate director of business sales for Verizon, said that his job was to take the concerns expressed at the meeting back to his leadership to see if there is anything that can be done to enhance coverage.

As the meeting ended, Presley returned to the universal service fund. He said that if companies do not respond and there is no movement toward improving rural service, then the money from the USF for those companies should not be approved. “How much longer are we going to throw money at the problem and not require corporations to do something about it?”

“The public good has always got to trump the private good in everything.”

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