Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How Cellular Dead Zones Hurt Rural Towns

Small businesses outside of coverage areas suffer from a lack of communications infrastructure.

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 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.