August 24, 2018 10:03:48 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Brandon Presley is not a cartographer by training or occupation.
But since he first became Public Service Commissioner for Mississippi's northern district, Presley has conducted almost 200 town hall meetings, traveling the roads in all of the district's 33 counties.
So while he had no training in cartography -- the study of maps and charts -- he knew both from personal experience and conversations with his constituents the FCC's map of cell phone coverage in Mississippi is wildly inaccurate.
A glance at the map shows cell phone coverage is available in almost 99 percent of the district, an idea that Presley calls "ridiculous."
Thursday at the Lowndes County Courthouse, Presley held what he calls a task-force meeting for area citizens he has enlisted to help prove his point.
"The FCC put this map out in the spring, and this map says unless you live in an area in blue, you have good cell phone coverage," he said. "There's almost no areas in blue. That's just how ridiculous the map is. We're asking this task force of citizens to help us go out and do something about it."
Presley said unless he can prove the FCC maps are inaccurate, the state stands to lose as much as $70 million in federal funding set aside to build cell phone towers in rural areas. He said the average cost of a cell phone tower is $500,000.
Presley maintains the FCC's data has been manipulated to the phone carriers who are resisting pressure to build cell phone towers in sparsely-populated areas of the state.
"If this map is not correct, if we do not change the FCC's mind, we'll lose millions of dollars that come to our state to fund cell phone service in rural areas, areas where phone carriers don't want to go based on profitability," he said. "I got news for you: They ain't coming to Greenwood Spring or Bartahatchie unless this map changes."
Presley raised the objections to the FCC, which, he said, has provided a method for contesting the accuracy of the maps. That, said Presley, is why he is soliciting residents and holding meetings in each of the 33 counties in his district.
"The FCC said if you believe our maps are not right, you have to show us why and we will accept data from our speed test App," he said. "So we're asking citizens to put the app on their phone and do speed tests where they know they don't have coverage. We're asking people to download the app to their cell phones and do as many tests as they can in as many places as they can as often as they can."
Presley said the FCC Speed Test app allows people to do the test, store them and send them to his office where the data will be collected and reported to the FCC. The FCC will accept data from the task force until Nov. 26, Presley said.
Local law enforcement, including the Lowndes County and Clay County sheriffs departments, have agreed to use the apps while on patrol.
"Our own staff is going to come to Lowndes County, too," he said. "We'll be driving up and down every dirt road, running speed tests. The more people we have doing that, the more proof we'll have that there are areas in every county where there just isn't reliable service."
Presley said 566 people have attended the 15 county meetings he's held so far.
"And that's just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We have hundreds more who have said they'll help. You don't have to be at one of these meeting to help. It's open to everybody."
Presley said the task force's work will be helpful in two ways.
"It's my sincere belief that carriers are telling people they have service in places where there is no service," he said. "This not only helps us debunk these crazy maps, it also puts some information in place as to what the cell service actually is like in, say, New Hope or Caledonia or Artesia. It's doing two jobs."
The free app is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
To sign up and get instructions on how to use the app, residents can call Presley's office 1-800-637-7722.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]