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AT&T eyes 4G internet service for county

If the merger between AT&T and T-Mobile is approved, all of McNairy County could have mobile broadband 4G LTE service within three years, according to an AT&T spokesman.

Trey Rabon, Regional Director of External and Legislative Affairs for West
Tennessee for AT&T, told the
Independent Appeal that the 4G
service, which operates at
speeds of 12 to 50 megabits per second (mbps) would cover virtually all of McNairy County.

AT&T currently offers
wireless broadband service to 87 percent of the country and is committed to expanding that
coverage to 97 percent, Rabon

One application that the upgrade would facilitate is that speeds would be fast enough to handle video and distance learning, he said.

A megabit is a million bits of information. Current 3G technology, which is available in most of the county, now has speeds of only 3.2 mbps.

This wireless internet service would be available for smartphones, iPads and computers.

The merger is currently awaiting regulatory approval from the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission.

Rabon expects the merger will be approved by the first quarter of next year.

He said it will probably take one and one-half years after the merger is approved  to integrate the networks of the two providers.

He said that after the merger goes through, T-Mobile customers will be able to keep their present phones and plans. However, once the upgrade to 4G is complete, T-Mobile customers may upgrade their 3G phones as they would normally.

Decisions on how much data will be offered at what price have yet to be made, he said.

Rabon said that if the merger is not approved, expansion of 4G service to the county would be much more difficult.

This is because spectrum for 4G is scarce and wireless carriers such as AT&T currently use it in the densely populated areas with the most customers, he said.

According to Rabon, the merger would alleviate the spectrum shortage, freeing up spectrum for use in less densely populated areas, such as McNairy County.

Wireless traffic has grown 8,000 percent over the past 4 years and is expected to grow 80,000 percent over the next ten years, Rabon said.

“We’re excited about the merger. We can really change the society we live in. It can open up a whole new world,” he said.

Competitor Sprint Nextel is much less enthusiastic about the merger.

Lisa Zimmerman-Mott of corporate communications for Sprint said, “The government must stop AT&T’s proposed $39 billion takeover of T-Mobile—if approved, the acquisition will hurt American consumers, undermine competition, slow broadband development and threaten jobs, investment and America’s economic recovery.” 

Zimmerman-Mott predicted that the elimination of T-Mobile would free AT&T and Verizon to raise prices.

“Sprint would become the last low-cost national wireless carrier; its ability to compete and provide low prices will be significantly marginalized,” she said.

Other arguments made by Zimmerman-Mott against the merger are that the merger won’t expand AT&T’s geographic reach because the networks “virtually overlap,” that AT&T has spectrum that is “virtually unused,” and T-Mobile doesn’t give AT&T any unused capacity because T-Mobile’s network is already congested.

According to the latest figures from  the FCC on market share, measured by percentage of revenues, at the end of 2009, Verizon had 33.8 percent of revenues for wireless service providers, AT&T had 30.7 percent, Sprint Nextel had 16.6 percent and T-Mobile had 12.1 percent.

AT&T and T-Mobile combined would control 42.8 percent of the market. If Verizon’s share is added to this, it would equal 76.6 percent which Zimmerman-Mott called a “duopoly.”

Almost 90 percent of customers live in areas where five or more wireless providers have coverage, the FCC reports.

However, only 17.3 percent of rural customers have coverage from four or more mobile broadband providers.

Another possible technology that could bring broadband to rural areas is power line carrier, according to Pickwick Electric Electric Cooperative (PEC) President Karl Dudley.

This technology can deliver television or internet through the power lines.

This is done by injecting the signal at one point and taking it out at another. This technology is already used to read meters.

There are some pilot projects and one working project in the area at Cullman Electric Cooperative, in Alabama. The technology is also more prevalent in Europe than the United States, according to Dudley.

However, Dudley says that PEC is passing on the technology for now, due to the problems of delivering a signal of sufficient quality for television or video. The Cullman system was put in place a year or two and PEC engineers went down and looked at it.

“The technology is moving forward. We hope we do (deploy it) someday,” he said.

Dudley called it “an exciting technology. If it does evolve, it will be a top technology,” he said.

However at present he said, “The technology is not there.”

The possibility of PEC bringing broadband to rural areas by installing its own fiber optic cable is not economically feasible, Dudley said. 

According to Dudley, PEC would not be able to recoup its cost per mile due to the low population density in the area it serves.

State law would also have to be changed to allow electric cooperatives to get into the cable or internet business.

He explained the big-picture implications by saying, “Rural America is where the future is in relation to job creation, but you cannot do any industry without broadband.”

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