CASPER, Wyo. — Cellular phones were once more curiosity than necessity — a convenience when they worked, and an object of abuse when they didn’t.
But technology has improved dramatically in recent years, as have calling rates. And with improved service, Wyoming and other sparsely populated areas of the nation have been quick to embrace wireless.
A recent survey conducted by Western Wats, an Utah research firm, indicates rural customers are becoming increasingly reliant on cellular phones for business and personal needs. Western Wats polled 1,000 customers of Western Wireless Corp., in areas with population of eight people or less per mile.
The results indicate an increasing reliance on wireless communication, with 51 percent of wireless users saying their cell phone has at least partially replaced land line phones.
Twenty-three percent said they regard a cell as their primary phone, and 15 percent of those polled plan to eventually replace a land line with cellular.
Western Wireless, which operates Cellular One service in Wyoming and 13 other Midwestern and Western states, commissioned the survey.
President Mikal Thomsen said his company made a conscious decision more than a decade ago to focus on rural customers, and the decision is beginning to bear fruit.
“As little as four years ago in Wyoming, the average customer had about 125 minutes of use. Today it’s something over 400,” Thomsen said. “A lot of that is changing the rate plans. But an awful lot of it is people are just coming in and saying ‘OK, I’m not just going to just use a cellular phone while I’m on the road in between wired phones.’ ...
“Just in the last year, our company has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of minutes per month over its entire million-person customer base. It’s been pretty remarkable.”
Cell phones have come a long way since the concept was developed in 1947. Researchers who were attempting to create a mobile phone out of World War II military technology discovered localized service cells could substantially increase caller traffic.
The Federal Communications Commission limited the number of conversations, however, to 23 per cell, rendering commercial applications impractical. After the FCC reconsidered those limits in 1968, research began in earnest and by 1977 a prototype system was tested in Chicago. In 1982, the FCC approved commercial service nationwide.
The technology has since become so efficient, virtually anything a land line can do, cellular can do.
“Another thing that is right around the corner is higher-speed data rates from mobile phones. We’re testing out in a couple of markets right now, including Billings, a product that has a 40 to 50 kilobyte-per-second data speed,” Thomsen said. “In a city like Casper, there are a lot of places you can get those kind of data speeds. But frankly, in smaller markets it’s tough even to get that from a wired situation.
“I know when I travel I will usually hook up my computer to my cell-phone because I can get higher speeds to hook up to the Internet than I can with the hotel phone. ... We’re going to start introducing more and more of it this year.”
Cell phones have become so efficient, and versatile some customers are electing to go totally wireless — a decision Rebecca Tennille, senior manager of media relations for Qwest, calls “cutting the cord.”
Tennille said statistics compiled by The Yankee Group, a firm that analyzes the telecommunications industry, indicate up to 3 percent of customers nationwide are strictly wireless.
“We see it a lot in college students, we see it mainly for second-line, wire-line replacement — people using wireless in lieu of a land line. Wireless competition is very robust and healthy, especially in rural areas like Wyoming,” said Tennille.
Cell phone usage in the West is strong because wireless adapts well to rural life.
Spencer Brennan, 30, is a methane-gas consultant from Sheridan, and a Western Wireless customer. Brennan spends numerous hours in his pickup and said cell phones are ideal for his work and mobile lifestyle.
“With all your long-distance carriers and everything else, you have to fight with them every month. Half the time, a land line, you don’t even use that stuff and you still get charged for it,” he said. “My cell phone, I pay $150 a month for two phones — one in my truck and one that I carry with me — and I make all the calls and talk to anybody I want to.
“I’m out in the field a lot. I wouldn’t know what to do without it.”
Land-line companies aren’t ready to tear the wire out of the ground, however. Tennille pointed out that Qwest, which provides much of the land-line service in Wyoming, has a cellular branch of its own.
“It’s an opportunity for us as well because we offer products and services. We offer a traditional wireless, then we also have a product called ‘Q by Qwest’ which is ... basically a local-service wireless phone,” Tennille said.
But clearly rural customers are increasingly finding wireless more practical as they roam the wide open spaces. Thomsen can visualize the day land lines will go the way of the eight-track tape player.
“It started out being people that spent their working lives away from a wired phone,” he said. “But more and more we are seeing spouses get phones and we’re seeing high school students getting phones. We’re seeing college students in a lot of cases getting cellular phones and never going out and getting a wired phone at all. ... We are attracting virtually everybody.”