Johnny Smith has a new digital cell phone, but he relies on an older, analog bag phone when he travels the wide-open spaces in the western part of the state to line up cattle for sale at a local livestock auction.
In rural areas where cellular towers are far apart, analog phones often work when digital models cannot get a signal. With the Federal Communications Commission pushing the move to all-digital phone service across the country, Smith and others in rural areas are urging the agency to wait until more towers are built to improve service.
"I carry a bag phone just because I can get so much better reception with it," Smith said. "If you're out in the middle of noplace, it's nice to be able to call somebody."
According to timelines set up by the FCC, wireless companies can phase out analog service by 2008. By the end of this year, the agency also is requiring that 95 percent of each wireless company's customers have digital phones containing chips that allow emergency operators to pinpoint a person's location when a call is placed to 911.
The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission will attempt to rally support for a resolution seeking to suspend or modify the deadline on location-capable phones Tuesday at the National Association of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners meeting in Austin.
Bob Sahr, a PUC member, said he hopes the FCC will look at the situation on a case-by-case basis to give continued support to analog service in rural areas that need the older technology. In some areas, it is the only kind of service that works, he said.
"If we phase those people out, they may be in a situation where they have this brand-new, state-of-the-art digital phone with all sorts of bells and whistles, but they're not going to be able to complete the call in the first place," Sahr said.
The Rural Cellular Association and CTIA-The Wireless Association, which both represent wireless companies, also support suspending the deadline. Companies do not want to force customers to switch to newer phones until it makes sense to do so, RCA Executive Director Tim Raven said.
"We have instances every day in local markets where folks are rescued because of their cell phones. It's just a matter of working up the technology issues and obstacles," he said.
The FCC has not responded to the request, and officials said the commission does not comment on pending matters. The agency has granted some companies waivers from the deadline based on local conditions.
The National Emergency Number Association, whose aim is to implement a universal emergency telephone number system, opposes a blanket delay in the move to the new digital phones, said Rick Jones, director of operations issues for the organization. However, the group is willing to consider requests for waivers by individual companies in areas in which a delay might make sense, he said.
As of June, less than half of the nation's 911 call centers had the capability of locating a cell phone containing one of the chips, Jones said. The call centers with the technology covered nearly 58 percent of the nation's population but less than 36 percent of its counties, he said.
In many states in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, fewer than 20 percent of call centers are capable of locating a cell phone, Jones said.
That number may not improve unless more funding is allocated. Jones said Congress passed a bill authorizing $250 million a year for five years to help call centers install the new phone-locating technology, but the funding has not been appropriated.
In the meantime, residents of rural areas will continue to fight to keep analog service. Emmer Hulce, 79, of Midland, S.D., said he wants to keep his analog bag phone so he can call family members without racking up long-distance charges.
"There's no chance of going with digital. I had digital, and that wasn't as good as the analog," said Hulce, a retired power company worker.