The office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is leading a successful effort to improve cell phone service in rural areas near the U.S.-Mexico border.
The border communications amendment was included in the $1 trillion omnibus spending bill that was recently passed by the House and the Senate.
The bill has been sent to President Barack Obama, who has said he will sign it.
“This legislation represents a significant step in making Americans who live and work along the border safer,” said Pia Carusone, chief of staff to Giffords. “Border security is of paramount concern to Congresswoman Giffords and this measure will bring to residents in remote areas the technology that allows them to alert the Border Patrol to threats.”
Poor cell phone coverage has been cited as one factor that delayed the search for a missing Cochise County rancher who later was found murdered on his land last year.
Language in the agreement authorizes and encourages the Department of Homeland Security to explore the establishment of public-private partnerships with cellular carriers, residents and state and local governments. Those partnerships would extend mobile communications for public safety in isolated border areas with limited cellular coverage. The provision included in the House-Senate agreement will begin the process of extending mobile communications into these border areas.
In June, the House voted 327-to-93 to include the border-area communications amendment in a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security. The language was suggested by Giffords’ office and introduced by Rep. Ted Poe of Texas and Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania.
Poe and Altmire said they were alerted to the problem and acted after being invited by Giffords’ office to come to the border in Southern Arizona and see firsthand problems caused by lack of communication networks. In speeches on the House floor, Altmire and Poe urged support for their amendment and credited Giffords for the idea. Video of those speeches is here.
Then earlier this month, a bipartisan group of legislators signed a letter circulated by Giffords’ office, Poe and Altmire urging that the border communications issue be part of the final spending bill. Cell phone coverage is so unreliable in some border areas that ranchers sometimes rely on shortwave radios to communicate and call for help. Often, border area residents will even find themselves out of radio range.
Poe came to Southern Arizona in March at the invitation of Giffords’ office and ranchers told him of a concern they had previously raised with Giffords: the lack of reliable communications in isolated areas near the border.
Among the ranchers Poe met was Sue Krentz, widow of Rob Krentz, who was murdered on their ranch March 27, 2010. A lack of reliable cell phone communications was cited as one factor that delayed the search for Krentz after he was reported missing on his land.
Giffords later experienced the communications problem herself. When she was traveling to a meeting with ranchers in an isolated area near the Arizona-Mexico border, she was unable to talk with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano by cell phone because of poor coverage.