Cellular One customers in Juneau soon will be able to use their cell phones anywhere in Alaska without paying a roaming charge.
That's one change resulting from the purchase of Mercury Communications' federally licensed cell phone operation in Southeast by Dobson Communications Corp., according to Dobson President Ed Evans.
Mercury, a Jackson, Miss., firm with a wholly owned subsidiary in Alaska, had operated in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka under the Cellular One brand name, as part of a national coalition of wireless service carriers.
The Federal Communications Commission had licensed the Mercury subsidiary to operate the so-called A side frequency in what is known as the Alaska 3 Rural Service Area, basically the panhandle. Mactel, formerly Cellulink, operates side B, and is the only competitor regionally.
Dobson, a 64-year-old company headquartered in Oklahoma City, got into the cell phone market in 1990 and has been acquiring rural service operations at a steady clip over the past three years.
Dobson recently closed on the deal to buy Mercury, following a $3 million technological upgrade that was included in the terms of the sale.
Already, Juneau Cellular One users should be able to notice much more reliable service and a greater geographical reach within Southeast, said Evans from Oklahoma City.
The company is nearing purchase of a Fairbanks-area FCC cell phone license held by Century Telephone of Louisiana, also operated under the Cellular One brand name.
That would give Dobson a license in two of the four geographical areas in Alaska designated by the FCC, with an aggregate population basis of 357,000, including 70,000 in Southeast.
Under a cooperative agreement with AT&T, which owns 4.9 percent of Dobson and has a license in the other two FCC-designated areas, Cellular One customers will have all of Alaska as a local calling area, Evans said.
Cell phone users often are ``gouged'' with extra charges when moving between service areas, but Dobson has a national one-rate plan, he said.
Late last year, radio transmitters were replaced at all 15 of Mercury's cell sites in Southeast and a new switch was installed in Juneau, Evans said.
The result is at least a 10-fold increase in capacity, which might alleviate some of the cell phone congestion caused by cruise ship passengers in the summers, he said. ``We may in fact have to add more capacity. (But) it should be substantially better than it was.''
There are tentative plans to erect three or four more towers by the end of the summer, Evans said.
Some sprucing up of the three storefronts in Southeast is planned, and conversion to a digital network in the near future will make available such features as a messaging service and caller ID, Evans said. No staff changes are imminent, he said. There are now 18 employees in Southeast.
``I expect business to be better than usual,'' said Jim Kohler, Cellular One manager in Juneau.
Although Dobson researched the Alaska markets very carefully, Evans said he doesn't see any weakness in Mactel, the sole competitor both in Southeast and the Fairbanks area.
``Frankly, they're a good competitor,'' he said. ``I'd rather have a good one because it helps the industry as a whole.''