The Influence of Topography and Fracking on Cellular Network Availability in Underserved Areas of Pennsylvania
43 Pages Posted: 16 Feb 2018 Last revised: 15 Aug 2018
Date Written: February 13, 2018
This study was originally inspired by several acquaintances of the author who are residents of North-Central Pennsylvania. These correspondents informed the author that their region has many large gaps in consumer cellular telephone coverage, with even fairly sizable towns being neglected; this is a long-known fact based on the region’s sparse population. But the local people are also aware that cellular connectivity can be found in remote backwoods areas at high elevations, often less than one mile outside of an unserved town. Meanwhile, there is a certain amount of discontent in the region as the rapidly-growing natural gas development industry (known colloquially as “fracking”) enjoys cellular network connectivity at its well sites and compressor stations, which also can be tantalizingly close to a town that has no coverage at all. Field research by the author revealed that the poorly-distributed cellular network coverage of North-Central Pennsylvania, in which communities have long been neglected while a relatively new industry is able to connect to its own benefit, is caused by the topography of the region and is also a manifestation of longstanding challenges arising from a thinly-distributed population and shortage of traditional transportation infrastructure. Specifically, inhabited towns are often in steep river valleys in which the rugged landscape blocks line-of-sight propagation of cellular signals, while that same landscape has thwarted transportation to areas that could be utilized for strategically-placed antennas. On the other hand, nearby uninhabited areas at higher elevations have coverage that until recently has benefited nobody, thanks to line-of-sight coverage from network towers at similar elevations a considerable distance away. The region also faces a less-specific challenge shared by other sparsely-populated places: the consumer cellular industry’s longstanding lack of interest in building more infrastructure in areas deemed to be unprofitable. This study finds that the natural gas industry has built infrastructure in previously inaccessible areas that had been beyond the reach or interest of telecommunications firms, and there is now much less reason for those firms to conclude that such areas are inaccessible. The paper starts with an analysis of the challenging geography of North-Central Pennsylvania and how this has shaped cellular network coverage in the region. This is followed by an analysis of land usage in the region by the natural gas industry, and that industry’s use of extant high-elevation connectivity for its own communications, often tantalizingly close to unserved communities at lower elevations. The paper concludes with recommendations for more efficient land usage by both the telecommunications and natural gas industries in ways that can enable the expansion of consumer cellular networks into presently unserved areas, with suggestions for interpreting existing Pennsylvania land use regulations to justify shared use of cleared lands and access roads that have already been approved for fracking, and which could also be a benefit for telecommunications.
Keywords: Network coverage, network infrastructure, universal service principles, corporate/government relations, public administration
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