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Winter cell phone service expected to be good despite changes in carriers

BELLE FOURCHE – Just ask any operator at a console at the Butte County Dispatch Center -- drivers today put increased faith in their cell phones as a lifeline when blizzards or other storms blow across western South Dakota.

A recent merger of cell phone companies brought concerns about whether drivers will still be able to call for help if they’re stranded. Right now, cell phone callers probably don’t know, or care, if they are using a Verizon tower or an Alltel tower, as long as they receive service.

That shouldn’t be a concern this winter, according to Steve Kolbeck, vice chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. Service should be fine this winter despite changes by cell phone carriers, Kolbeck said, but beyond that the future is less clear.

In fact, he said, winter drivers may have better coverage this year than two years ago when more than 40 people were stranded on U.S. Highway 212 east of Newell.

Dallas Ford, head dispatcher for Butte County’s Belle Fourche-based center, said cell phones kept those stranded people in touch, even providing satellite location data for those stuck on the road.

Both Verizon and Alltel have been building new towers that likely will expand reliable cell coverage in the vast expanses of western South Dakota, and a roaming agreement means callers are able to use either company’s towers.

After next spring, however, Alltel customers could be using AT&T technology that is incompatible with Verizon, which raises questions about cell coverage, Kolbeck said. 

The two companies are not saying much about their plans at this time, which doesn’t surprise the PUC.

  “You have to give a softened answer,” Kolbeck said. “I’m sure they’re not going to speculate.”

  Both companies say they will build more towers, but planning-and-zoning issues control where they can be built.

   “That’s why they avoid speculating,” Kolbeck said of the cell phone companies.

  In 2005, for example, Spearfish turned down a Verizon application for a new cell tower inside the city limits following complaints about the proposed location.

  In South Dakota, Verizon and Alltel had nearly equal shares of about 90 percent of the cell phone business. Verizon’s acquisition of Alltel would have given them a near statewide monopoly, but federal regulators ordered Verizon to sell Alltel properties in South Dakota.

  AT&T won the bidding war for part of that network.

  But AT&T phones don’t work with Verizon’s cellular radio equipment, and Verizon phones don’t work with AT&T equipment.

  Alltel customers can get new phones for free in early 2011, but the exact date for the switch is uncertain.

  Kolbeck said the changeover may not come until March or later.

  Franchise operators in Belle Fourche aren’t speculating on when changes in “roaming” may affect drivers traveling on long stretches of isolated highways. Through this winter, however, Alltel and Verizon agreements continue cell phone coverage to customers of both companies.

  Although there’s a federally mandated agreement between the two, Kolbeck said nobody knows exactly what may happen in the coming year or two.

  All Alltel towers will eventually add AT&T technology, he said. In the meantime, a yearlong roaming contract keeps the Alltel and Verizon technology available for customers of both companies.

  Both carriers have told the PUC they will not need to continue the roaming agreement after next year.

  The U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission required that the sale to AT&T guarantee “equal or better service,” Kolbeck said, but until the changeover is complete, nobody knows what that may mean.





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