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Many Montana Hutterites, and numerous other rural residents across that vast state, may lose their cell phone connections after February 18th when cellular carriers will be permitted to shut down analog services. The problem will occur because the Federal Communications Commission decided in 2002 to allow cellular carriers to close the analog-based services next month.

According to an Associated Press story about the subject carried by CNN on Christmas Eve, the analog cell phones require 16 times as much broadcast spectrum as digital phones. When carriers that own the rights to sections of broadcast spectrum phase out analog customers and switch them over to digital, they will be able to offer additional services on their bandwidth—and of course make additional money.

The AP story focuses primarily on the problems of services such as OnStar-equipped, older vehicles, many of which are only able to receive analog signals. The article is dismissive of the difficulties people with older analog cell phones will have: “Perhaps a million cell phones will lose service, but those are cheap and easy to replace,” the journalist writes.

Analog cell phone transmission signals carry for a much greater distance than digital, so some customers in rural America, at locations far from the nearest cellphone towers, may lose their service when providers no longer offer analog connectivity. According to the AP story, a few rural, cellular providers are concerned about their customers. It names a couple companies in the rural West that plan to keep their analog services alive and working, “for the foreseeable future,” as one executive said.

The Great Falls Tribune, published from the heart of Montana’s vast expanse of open country, did not approach the issue so casually in a series of three articles on December 30th. Apparently, the cellular providers are reacting differently to the situation. Verizon will cease all analog services as of February 18, but other firms are taking a different approach. Alltel and the Nemont Cooperative in Montana indicate they will continue their analog service, at least for a while after the 18th.

For years, some Hutterites, and other remote Montana residents, have been using what they call “bag phones.” These large, analog devices, generally carried around in leather bags, are able to connect to transmission towers that are many, many miles away. While cumbersome, and devoid of extras that digital services offer, such as connectivity to the Internet and text-messaging, at least they do provide mobile, wireless phone service. The analog phones use 3 watts of power, compared to a few tenths of a watt for small, hand-held, digital phones.

Peter Wipf, from the Twin Hills Hutterite Colony located near Carter, Montana, tried one of the large digital phones referred to as “digital bag phones,” but he found it did not connect nearly as well as the analog bag phone. “It doesn’t even come close,” he indicated.

Another Hutterite colony expressed concern that they are not getting the cell phone service they are paying for. Evidently 25 members of the Gildford colony have cell phones, but they barely get a signal. “You buy the things and they’re either a nuisance to you or no good at all,” said Fred Stahl, a member of that group.

Rural Montana residents make the argument that, like everyone else in America, they have become dependent on good cell phone service. For instance, federal privacy laws prohibit ambulance crews from using their radios to discuss the conditions of individual patients with doctors at urban hospitals. The radio conversations can be monitored by people with police scanners. The crews often have to pull off the remote highways and search for spots where they can use their cell phones to contact doctors in emergencies.

The problems of really remote rural residents in America may not matter too much to corporate executives who develop ever newer cellular services that will excite Americans to consume and spend. Decisions about erecting more cellphone towers in sparsely populated rural places such as Montana are made by profit-seeking corporations. Keeping these rural people connected to the cellular networks after February 18th will pose a continuing problem.