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When smartphones first came out, the number of low-income families and individuals who purchased those devices surprised many people in the cellular industry.
Eventually, they realized those devices offered a way to access the Internet at a lower cost than buying a computer and paying for in-home service, according to Hood Harris, president of AT&T Kentucky.
That connectivity also meant more opportunities — more ways for anyone to search for jobs, send emails and learn about the world around them.
"We need more of that, not less of it,” Harris told the audience at the Aug. 1 Friday Forum, hosted by the Marion County Economic Development Office at the David R. Hourigan Government Building.
He asked how many people had once owned a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry phone. His point was that the companies that don’t keep up with changes fall behind.
With that in mind, Hood said people may have heard about legislation AT&T supports to change laws affecting the telecommunications in Kentucky.
During the 2014 General Assembly, SB 99 called for ending most of the Public Service Commission’s authority over telecommunications exchanges with 15,000 or more housing units and reducing the PSC’s authority in less populated areas. (This legislation passed the Senate, but was not heard on the floor of the House of Representatives.)
Opponents of this legislation, including the AARP, have expressed concerns that this could leave people without landline service.
Harris said that would not be the case. He said 17 other states have passed similar legislation and he’s not aware of anyone who’s lost services they already have.
From AT&T’s perspective, Kentucky’s telecom laws force them to continue to invest more funding into the older systems, which means they aren’t able to invest as much into newer technologies, such as 4G LTE and wireless broadband.
"It's not about taking anything away. It's about moving into the future,” Harris said.
Bluegrass Cellular announced last month that it’s working toward completing its 4G LTE network by the end of 2015.
Marion County already has Bluegrass Cellular’s 4G, but additional towers are on scheduled to be completed in 11 Kentucky counties by the end of this year. That includes towers near Marion County — Springfield in Washington County and New Haven in Nelson County.
In a phone interview, Barry Nothstine, Bluegrass Cellular’s vice president of sales and marketing, also noted that two more 4G sites were activated in Marion County in June.
Bluegrass Cellular noted that 4G service can provide speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G service. Nothstine also explained that the 4G signal is on a lower frequency than 3G.
“The lower you go the better you get,” he said.
Specifically, the lower frequency allows the signal to better get through barriers, such as roofs of buildings, according to Nothstine, and 4G can open the possibility of broadband internet in areas where wired services can’t reach.
Both Nothstine and Harris reminded cell phone users that a phone or device must be 4G capable to benefit from 4G service.
Likewise, someone with a 4G phone cannot benefit from the service if they are in an area without 4G coverage. For those situations, 4G phones can access older 3G and even 2G networks.
When asked about dead spots in coverage, Harris said he is aware that they exist in Marion County as he’s learned when he’s brought friends to visit Maker’s Mark. (Harris also encouraged AT&T customers to download a free app, Mark The Spot, which allows them to identify dead spots. When customers return to an area with service, the information about the dead spots is sent to AT&T, he said.)
He also said AT&T has to make business decisions about where new towers will be built, and Kentucky’s regulatory environment makes it more difficult for AT&T to invest here compared to other states.
He did say AT&T tries to find opportunities to work with its competitors, such as co-locating equipment on cellular towers when possible.
“We pride ourselves on trying to work with other carriers,” Harris said.
Bluegrass Cellular has a formal agreement with Verizon Wireless to share network services through their LTE in Rural America program. Nothstine said this allows Verizon customers to connect to Bluegrass Cellular’s network when they are in the area, and it allows Bluegrass customers to tap into the Verizon network when they travel.
Both Harris and Nothstine said that 5G service is being developed in laboratories, but neither would speculate on how long it would take for 5G to become a reality.
Regardless, Harris said its incredible the advances that have been made in technology. At one point in his talk, Harris held up a Radio Shack advertisement from 1993, featuring an array of electronic devices.
Today, smartphones can do everything that all those different devices did 20 years ago, Harris said.
“To me, what our engineers do is almost magic,” he said.