- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

How Cellular Dead Zones Hurt Rural Towns

Janie Corley can’t keep customers away from the cashier at her gift shop. From the outside, this looks like a good thing—any small business would want customers flocking to the checkout line in droves. But for Corley, the line’s a sign of a bigger problem: poor cell phone reception. This lack of infrastructure hinders economic development in small communities in many rural areas, and without adequate cellular coverage they remain invisible to the larger marketplace.

“[Customers] get to the end of the counter, suddenly their phone gets a signal, and they get a text message, and they’re like ‘Oh!’ so they all stand right there because they don’t wanna leave the sweet spot.”

Together with her husband, Corley owns Christian Way Farm and Mini Golf, a tourism and heritage farm in Christian County, Kentucky. Between the mini-golf, the pumpkin patch, and Christian Way’s other activities, the small business hosts 18,000 guests a year. But Corley knows there could be more. “I know the benefit of, ‘Oh, you’re someplace, let’s Snapchat about where we are, let’s post it on Instagram, let’s post it on Facebook immediately so that other people are looking’ and, ‘Oh, look where they are. We should go there.’”

Drive 30 miles southwest, and you won’t find better reception. That’s where my parents live. They get a signal if they stand over the heating vent in my old bedroom. There’s also reception on the left side of their couch. But shift to the right side of the sofa, and you get disconnected.

Further down the road, people would say half of a couch is great. That’s because my parents live at the beginning of a roughly three-mile wide cell phone dead zone.

The problem is, no one knows why. Christian County is in western Kentucky—not eastern—so there are no mountains to block the signal or valleys for it to drop off in. Hopkinsville, the county seat, is around an hour’s drive from Nashville, Tennessee, so the area’s not even that remote. Even more baffling is the coverage map on AT&T’s website. According to it, 100 percent of Christian County has full “domestic wireless voice coverage.”

Whatever the reason, if service seems bad now, it’s about to get worse. On August 21, 25,000 to 50,000 more cell phones will suddenly be held to the sky, searching for a signal. Turns out, that three-mile dead zone is at the epicenter of the most historic total solar eclipse [1] the United States has ever seen. 80 percent of Americans live within 600 miles of its path, and they’re bringing their phones.

At this point, the need for better reception is no longer about growing local business. It’s a public liability.

Brooke Jung is Hopkinsville/Christian County’s solar eclipse marketing and events consultant. Last September, she asked AT&T and Verizon to bring in cell-towers on wheels known as COWs. “Both cellular providers have been very receptive,” she says, although it did take some persuasion for them to understand how large the need truly was. Initially, the cell providers were considering using CROWs, which actually sit on top of existing cell towers and enhance the signal. But after learning more about the magnitude of this event, they began discussing COWs. “In fact,” Jung says, “AT&T is providing what is called a Mega COW.” (As of this writing, Jung was waiting for confirmation from Verizon.)

The typical COW provides reception for a two-mile radius. So the one Christian County is getting won’t cover Corley’s company or other small businesses—in fact, it won’t even reach the right side of my parents’ couch. AT&T is putting its Mega COW on Orchardale, a farm centrally located near the point of greatest eclipse. What this means in practical terms is the COW should provide a signal for the eclipse’s best viewing site, but not for any of the roads, hotels, restaurants, or other places tourists make calls from.

“The number of COWs is evaluated by the cellular companies,” Jung says, mentioning that geographically, Orchardale is the same size as where Bonnaroo, a Tennessee music festival, is held. Bonnaroo, she says, “require[s] about 7-8 COWs from both AT&T and Verizon.”

So will one COW with a two-mile radius be enough to cover a whole county plus 25,000-50,000 extra people? “[AT&T and Verizon] feel confident we will be able to operate successfully with just one from each provider,” Jung says.

Personally, perched on the left arm of my parents’ couch, I feel less confident. The area needs better reception period and, while AT&T’s Mega COW is much appreciated, it simply brings reception up to the base level people who live there need already. But I don’t work for AT&T: Maybe a Mega COW can work miracles. So I called Cathy Lewandowski, AT&T’s Senior Public Relations Manager for Tennessee and Kentucky to get more information. She refused to confirm that AT&T was even sending a COW and refused my request for an interview.

Meanwhile, Janie Corley is still trying to grow a business. After reaching out to AT&T for help, she says “a gentleman that is an executive with AT&T and works out of Memphis drove up here and sat at a picnic table with me to discuss what the options were.” At the end of meeting, though, he told her there was nothing AT&T could do.

Before AT&T’s move from 4G to LTE technology in 2015, Corley and her company did have reception. So Corley asked him, “How come suddenly I don’t have the cell phone signal that I used to have?” The answer? According to Corley, the change from 4G to LTE meant AT&T “had to switch [the cell phone towers] to a different angle and since they’re pushing the LTE signal, I couldn’t get anything. And there’s not any appealing, oh, could you send some my way. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, entertainment, public affairs, and the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "How Cellular Dead Zones Hurt Rural Towns"

#1 Comment By collin On March 17, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

Ok, it appears the free market has spoken and the cellular phone companies can’t make enough money for better coverage. I know this will become more of a problem but I am not sure the solution. (A shared cell tower for all carriers?)

Then what should be done about it? Cell phones carriers are not regulated to cover the US.

#2 Comment By Rabiner On March 17, 2017 @ 6:46 pm

I’d feel more sympathetic if Kentucky wasn’t overwhelmingly voting for people who don’t seem to care that rural places just don’t have the same market incentives for infrastructure investment.

#3 Comment By GregR On March 18, 2017 @ 2:17 am

It really maybe something that small cities need to invest in directly. Small cell technology is available off the shelf and could provide city block sized coverages areas reasonably inexpensivly.

I have a micro version that can reach a tower 3 miles away and covers a couple hundred square feet. Cost about $50.

#4 Comment By Jake V On March 18, 2017 @ 8:27 am

I don’t know the larger answer, but for a now a small business could use a cell booster (under $1k), where you set up a high-gain directional antenna on a rooftop or other high place and create your own cell-reception zone.

It seems to me that it would almost pay for itself, as if you are in a cell dead zone your business would become a destination for anyone in the area.

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 18, 2017 @ 9:21 am

It is almost as if small towns and rural areas need some mechanism for regulating corporate behavior and/or for cross subsidies from more heavily populated places to ensure essential services. I wonder what that mechanism could be, and which of the two political parties has been the consistent proponent of that mechanism, and which one has wanted to drawn it in a bathtub for decades?

#6 Comment By SteveM On March 18, 2017 @ 9:51 am

Unfortunately, technology becomes obsolete all the time. E.g. floppy disks. But the market actually does work.

BLÜ sells unlocked, full featured (LTE) Android smart phones starting at 60 bucks:

[2]

There are other manufacturers that are not overpriced Samsung and not overpriced Apple to the meet the need.

P.S. spending 600+ bucks for a commodity device is probably nuts.

P.P.S. If you buy a BLÜ or other phone that accepts an SD memory card, a 32GB card is 13 bucks at Amazon, when Apple will charge you hundreds extra for more built in memory.

#7 Comment By Patrick On March 18, 2017 @ 10:00 am

In Northwest Connecticut, coverage is spotty. Everybody complains.

Then a new tower is proposed, and everybody complains, because they don’t want to look at it.

And so the long day wears on…

#8 Comment By Marven On March 18, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

Glad those fools and kinfolk voted for Trump who will take away access to satellite internet and rural internet programs through the FCC. Makes it better for us in the cities where people who aren’t interbred live.

#9 Comment By William Harrington On March 18, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

Bring back local coops to set up local cell towers.

#10 Comment By David On March 19, 2017 @ 8:03 am

Most large carriers offer a “network extender” for less than $260. (It ought to be less or free, I know.)
The device extends cell service in a building while connected to the carrier over the internet.
Sounds like investment the gift shop should make. If I owned a store in a low coverage area, I would, it would be a great way to attract customers.

#11 Comment By grumpy realist On March 19, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

Try getting cellphone reception in downtown Chicago sometimes. All those steel-and-concrete skyscrapers turn individual blocks into Faraday cages.

#12 Comment By kalendjay On March 20, 2017 @ 8:43 pm

Interesting that Qualcom, Verizon and others are unilaterally (and without apparent guidance from the FCC) are pursuing the LCE standard at the expense of WiFi, which was a toy but which will leave many users stranded with a system in declining use. So the majors are implementing a way to challenge the cell tower model and further delocalize communication, and bundle it with such services as the Internet of Things.

But There is still a chance smaller users, ISP’s, and others to retain WiFi telephony and expand it to rural areas, small neighborhoods, etc. The result may look like Teletex, Listserv, and other early communication models, but still be way beyond the land line.

#13 Comment By Judy Brown On March 22, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

Call Greg Walden and complain….he is the house chair of communications and licks corporate boots; so after 18 years doing nothing, maybe it is time for him to step up.