Company wins $10.2M grant for rural cell service

ARLINGTON, Ala. -- A small company won a $10 million federal grant to expand wireless service in one of Alabama's most isolated regions, a five-county area west of Montgomery where it's sometimes impossible to make a cellphone call.

Pine Belt Cellular was the only company that sought the money through a competitive bid process to build new cellphone infrastructure along almost 1,600 miles of roads in the area, the Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday.

The president of the family-owned company, John Nettles, said Pine Belt will use the funding to construct and connect towers and antennas in parts of Choctaw, Dallas, Marengo, Perry and Wilcox counties. The area to be covered with new services stretches from metro Montgomery to the Mississippi state line.

"It's mainly rural communities. It's a patchwork," said Nettles.

Aside from letting larger carriers pay to use the network, Nettles said Pine Belt Carrier hoped to expand its customer base, which now consists of fewer than 2,000 users. That's part of the problem of expanding cell service in rural areas: The lack of users makes it difficult financially.

"It is our goal to double our subscriber base," he said.

The company faces a three-year deadline to establish at least 3G service in the region, where broad areas have spotty cellphone service and only limited high-speed Internet capability. Cellphone users often can't find a signal outside the largest towns in each county.

The FCC said the grant money was awarded competitively through an auction. Nettles said the $10.2 million grant would pay only for infrastructure; money is supposed to be available later for capital to operate the system.

In a statement, the FCC said grant awards in Alabama and other states totaling $300 million marked the first time the agency had tried to achieve universal cellphone coverage.

"For too many, dead zones in mobile Internet coverage are too common _ and today's winners will help the U.S. close those gaps," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Pine Belt Cellular is a sister company of Pine Belt Telephone, established by Nettles father in 1958.