Over the past 25 years a revolution has occurred in the communications industry. It has far reaching consequences for our nation, our county, and for each of us as individuals. Over the past decade the County Legislature initially monitored these changes, and recently has developed a strategy to respond to it. This is a huge topic and it is hard to understand, or explain. Here is my attempt.
- Until about 1980 most individuals, businesses and homes had a telephone line that provided their primary link with the outside world. Service was provided by a regulated monopoly over copper wire landlines. Technology changed and it became possible (in many areas) to obtain service from a company other than the traditional phone company. The competition drove down prices, which most of us thought was a good thing.
- In the early 1990s cell phone technology improved to the point where it was more reliable and affordable. Suddenly (it seemed) most people had cell phones, and coverage was available in most places. Initially most individuals and businesses kept their “land-lines” and just added cell phones. However, as time passed people began to drop their landlines, and increasingly relied only on their cell phones.
3 The revolution was not yet over. The “Internet Revolution” arrived in the 1990s and homes and businesses began to use the Internet in ways that had been previously unimaginable. “VoIP” (or Voice over Internet Protocol) became available and affordable. It is now available in many areas at a significant savings over landline service.
- As the technology evolved companies from divergent fields found they could compete with one another. This was possible because the technologies “converged” with one another. Cable TV companies can now provide Internet and VoIP service over their cable lines. Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) can provide Internet and VOIP service, as well as “cable-like service” over their Internet lines. With upgrades phone companies can provide DSL Internet service over phone lines. Cell phone companies have added “Hot-Spot” technology that provides Internet service over cell phones.
The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) recently issued a report regarding changes in the telecommunications field. The implications of these figures are enormous.
- From 2008 to 2013 landlines decreased from 141 million to 90 million;
- From 2008 to 2013 VoIP subscriptions increased from 21.7 million to 45.3 million;
- In June 2009 there were 265 million cell phone subscribers. In June 2013 there were 306 million cell phone subscribers.
There is a downside to all of the innovations and changes. Many of the problems impact rural areas (like Allegany County) very differently than urban or suburban areas. These impacts include the following:
- The traditional business model for telephone companies is no longer viable. Their monopoly doesn’t exist anymore. They have been losing customers and market share for about 25 years.
- Most telephone companies have evolved into cell-phone providers, and now focus on cell phone service. They are neglecting their traditional “copper landlines” because they are less profitable.
- Cell phone service is not a regulated monopoly. Providers are not required to provide cell phone service to all customers. Remote rural areas (including large portions of Allegany County) are being left without reliable phone service.
- Most rural areas don’t have enough population (potential customers) to justify the investment necessary to build the infrastructure to provide high-quality service.
Portions of Allegany County have excellent phone service, cell phone service, Internet service and cable service. Unfortunately, other parts of our County have deteriorating phone service, and little or no cell phone or Internet service. The County’s response is taking advantage of the “convergence” of technology to use our E-911 backbone to provide quality Broadband Internet service, including VoIP. Cell phone companies will also be able to use space on our towers to provide improved cell phone service in remote locations. Our “wireless” technology is much better adapted to our rural terrain than the technology used by most ISPs. This is an example of necessity being the “mother of invention.”