By Cullen Robbins, Nebraska Public Service Commission
If you have ever traveled through the rural areas of Nebraska, you can probably relate to the problem of poor cellular phone coverage in some of these areas. On December 20, 2016, the Nebraska Public Service Commission (Commission) approved funding for the construction of up to 11 mobile wireless towers totaling $4 million as part of the Nebraska Universal Service Fund (NUSF) Broadband Program. This program has been used to support wireless tower construction in rural areas of Nebraska since 2009. In the interceding period, the NUSF has funded the construction of over 145 towers in these rural areas of the state.
In February, 2016, the Commission opened the application window for the grant funding, with applications to the Commission due by March 31, 2016. Applications were received from three providers to build a total of 22 towers for 20 projects, and requested approximately $8.4 million to complete the tower projects. To determine how the $4 million in available funds would be allocated, the Commission utilized a distribution methodology to prioritize which projects would receive funding. The Commission developed a methodology that aimed to provide tower support in areas that were high-cost, i.e. rural, and in areas that, absent NUSF support, are least likely to provide sufficient operating revenues to support tower construction or cell site placement. Applicants provided information regarding the location of the site and the coverage area that the project would serve. The Commission first used that information to determine if the project was covering a high-cost area. If so, then each project that covered a high-cost area was ranked according to how many households would be served, how much traffic would be served, and whether there were already towers in close proximity to the proposed location of the tower. To determine the number of households, 2010 US Census data was analyzed to find the number of households within each proposed service area. Those projects that had the potential to serve the most households were assigned a higher priority rank. Similarly, projects that served a higher amount of traffic, determined from traffic information provided by the Department of Roads, were given a higher priority. Finally, proximity from the proposed tower location to the nearest tower of the same technology (CDMA or GSM) was determined, and those towers farthest away from any other towers were assigned a higher priority. These three priority rankings were then used to determine the overall priority of each project with respect to the other projects. Funding was allocated to the projects starting with the highest priority projects and moving down the priority list until funding was exhausted.
For this round of grants, US Cellular was approved for up to $2,486,525 to construct five towers at locations near Winnebago, Wallace, Kilgore, Wood Lake, and the Prairie Club. Pinpoint Wireless, d/b/a Blaze Wireless, was approved for up to $597,530.26 to construct three towers at locations near Gothenburg, Jeffery Lake, and Farnam. N. E. Colorado Cellular, d/b/a Viaero Wireless, was approved for up to $915,944.75 to construct three towers near Ruskin, Deshler, and Humboldt.
In approving these grant funds, the Commission requires the recipients to accommodate collocation and sharing of equipment with other wireless carriers, public safety agencies, and internet providers where technically feasible. The Commission also requires the recipients to permit roaming with other carriers, and to maintain Phase II wireless E911 capability, which allows the location of callers (as latitude and longitude coordinates) to be determined by emergency responders.
The Commission has been committed to providing support to unserved and underserved areas to close the broadband availability gap, and will continue to do so through the NUSF moving forward. This is just one of several programs administered under the NUSF that aims to ensure that all Nebraskans have access to quality telecommunications and information services at affordable and comparable rates. Find out more at: http://psc.nebraska.gov.