There’s nowhere I’d rather live than rural Missouri. In the wintertime, we have crisp morning air, beautiful sunrises and calm, serene views. Getting out in the cold to check and feed our cattle, I feel like none of the craziness in the rest of the world matters and I have everything I need.
There is just one little thing I’d like for Christmas though: a reliable cell phone signal. Utilities have come a long way since the days of my grandparents and their first years on the farm. With a concerted effort and many people working together, essentially everyone had electricity and landline phone service within a few short years. It’s unheard of now for someone to not have running water – something that was not that uncommon a couple of generations ago. We’ve even made great progress over the past decade getting wired broadband internet to more and more rural residents and farms.
So why is it that in 2022 my iPhone gets worse service than my bag phone got in the year 2000?
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Amazingly, the “upgrade” to 5G service has made rural coverage worse. 5G signals operate at a much shorter wavelength than 4G LTE. This allows them to carry up to 10 times more data, but they travel for a much shorter range. It also has less penetrating power, so it is more easily stopped by trees, rocks, houses and hills. We have a lot of those in rural Missouri, so 5G signals aren’t worth much where I live.
To put this in numbers, 5G signals travel only about 1,000 feet, while 4G can go up to 10 miles. That means 5G doesn’t even travel two percent as far! This might work in cities, where you can put an antenna on every street light in a neighborhood, but out in rural America it doesn’t do much good.
To be honest, the problem in most of rural Missouri isn’t that the cell phone companies have failed to deliver us 5G. It’s that they have stopped expanding their 4G service because they’re pouring so many resources into expanding 5G in the cities and suburbs. This is making the digital divide between rural and urban areas worse. Cities are getting lightning-fast upgrades while we are still waiting for consistent, basic 4G service.
Governor Parson and his administration are well aware of the need for better cell phone coverage. The Governor recommended $20 million for a Cell Tower Grant program in the 2023 state budget. The program would fund the construction, retrofitting or refurbishment of towers, especially on public lands. The Department of Economic Development is working on guidelines, and I’m excited to see what kind of difference this investment can make. The reality is, though, that it’s going to take an awful lot more money and manpower to get our coverage up to snuff.
Reliable cell phone service, both voice and data, are necessary in today’s day and age. We need it for safety, to do business in the modern economy and to deliver a reasonable quality of life. Our kids are not going to come home to our rural communities if they can’t make a phone call without climbing to the top of a silo, let alone check what their friends are doing on social media.
The challenges to getting consistent coverage for every corner of rural Missouri are big and expensive. I know this problem will not be solved overnight. Even with spotty cell phone service, rural Missouri is where I choose to be. Still, I can’t help but think it sure would be better if Santa brought me a cell phone signal this Christmas.