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Cell-Phone Service Problems, PSC Delays Discussed in Senate

Aug. 28, 2007 — Complaints about dropped calls, dead zones and bad cell reception were bandied about the Senate's chambers Tuesday, as representatives from various communications companies gathered to discuss company policies and plans to improve the local wireless network.
Also at the forefront of discussion was the need to obtain additional financing to subsidize the installation of extra cell sites within the territory. While wireless execs said they could combat the problem by applying for federal universal-service funds, members of the Public Services Commission requested that increased regulatory oversight be imposed on the wireless carriers.
Cell phones, as a global trend, have generally replaced the traditional land lines, explained PSC Chairwoman Alecia Wells.
"This shift and growth in the use of cell phones brings with it an increased need for regulation," she said. "This is particularly necessary here in the territory, where limited participants and what could only be categorized as a lack of competition in the wireless industry has resulted in poor service and high cost."
Since federal law limits the PSC's authority over wireless carriers, Wells said that senators would have to clarify through legislation exactly what the commission would be able to do. Other state legislatures have introduced proposals requiring the disclosure of certain types of information, including policies on consumer rights and maps highlighting existing dead zones within a given area, she said.
While wireless representatives explained that their consumer pricing and contract policies are standard throughout the mainland, many also said that much of the other information — including maps — could be found on the companies' websites or in local offices.
Others explained that the territory's topography limits network availability.
"Let's look at cell-phone reception from a radio-wave point of view," said William L. Roughton Jr., vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at Centennial Communications Corp. "If radio waves essentially move like light, and there's a mountain in the way, the waves won't get to the other side."
Installation of new cell sites within the territory would improve network reliability, Roughton added. To purchase the equipment, however, wireless providers would need access to additional funds, he said.
In an effort to obtain the funds, Centennial petitioned the PSC to become an eligible communications carrier (ETC). Though the request was filed almost a year ago, commission members have not yet taken action on the matter, Roughton said.
The federal funds would come from the universal-service fund (USF), a Federal Communications Commission-controlled program designed to bring better telecommunications services to rural and insular areas. For the money to flow to the islands, the PSC would need to certify Centennial as a competitive ETC. The company would be eligible for at least $1.5 million in federal funds if the petition were approved, Roughton said.
Representatives from Sprint Nextel Corporation said their company would also seek ETC status, and could possibly rake in triple the amount of federal dollars.
Tapping into the universal-service funds would not affect the amount of money awarded to other ETC carriers in the territory, Roughton added.
The PSC's delay in considering the proposal results from Centennial's failure to submit required information, Wells said. PSC technical consultant Gregory Mann said that while Centennial has submitted all requested documents, outstanding issues — such as whether the PSC has the authority to grant ETC status to wireless providers — still linger.
The Senate went for the middle ground Tuesday. While many senators said they would like to see some local restrictions placed on wireless providers — accompanied by penalties for loss of service — others added that the PSC should have acted more expeditiously on Centennial's petition.
"They could already be certified to receive $1.5 million worth of additional funds," said Sen. James Weber III, chairman of the Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture. "The process was initiated in April 2005, but the PSC hasn't done anything yet. And that's several million dollars out there that won't cost us anything to get, and won't hamper the competition because it's available to any wireless provider. So let's get a move on this."
Hearings scheduled in the past to deal with Centennial's request have also been postponed because the commission's hearing examiner and technical consultant could not attend, Wells said.
"There were circumstances beyond our control," she said.
Taking the opportunity to question Wells directly, Sen. Ronald E. Russell asked if the PSC's inaction was related in any way to an agreement struck with Innovative Communications Corp.
"What does Centennial have to do with Innovative?" Wells responded. "I don't understand that question."
In October 2006, a letter surfaced with Wells’ signature offering the PSC's blessing to Innovative Communication Corp.'s plan to use Vitelco assets to finance a bankruptcy settlement for ICC's other related companies. (See “PSC Chair Denies Secret Deal with ICC, Despite Letter Written in Her Name.”)
Residents with questions or concerns about the PSC could call her at 776-6340, Wells said.
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Basil Ottley Jr., Russell, Weber and Alvin L. Williams.
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