EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 11, 2013

Cell service remains spotty in Southern N.H.

Consumers, providers have differing views

By Alex Lippa
alippa@eagletribune.com

---- — Melanie Davidson can often be seen by the window of her Derry living room. But she isn’t just admiring her yard. She has to be there. It is the only place in her home that she can get service on her cellphone to make work-related calls.

“I’d be better off working from the library,” she said. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

She’s not alone.

Many Southern New Hampshire residents and officials are frustrated by the lack of cellphone reception when traveling around the region or inside their own homes.

“There’s no Verizon service (at my home) in Hampstead, near the Atkinson border,” Cathleen Drivas said in a Facebook post. “It drove the parents crazy that they couldn’t reach their kids on the phone.”

Derry resident Kim Vareschi said she often loses calls while at home.

“Some parts of the house and yard are very strong, others drop calls,” she said on Facebook. “No walking and talking around my house.”

Others have problems when they are traveling.

“Service is very spotty in rural or suburban areas such as East Derry, Windham or Atkinson,” Treva Cassidy of Derry said on Facebook.

But it’s not just residents using cellphones having issues.

Atkinson fire Chief Michael Murphy said the lack of service in the area can impede firefighters during calls.

“It’s deficient in the area,” he said. “In low-lying areas, it can be a safety issue. I’m not sure if we need a new cell tower or existing infrastructure, but something needs to be done.”

Plaistow Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald said emergency communications is something his town is focused on, too.

“We’re actively looking at ways we can improve service because it’s a safety issue and for customer service,” he said. “Everyone is on a cellphone now, so we want them to be connected.”

Fitzgerald said high terrain on Sweet Hill Road and Mount Misery off North Main Street are two potential locations for new towers.

Providers work to improve service

There are people actively trying to improve the coverage. James George is a consultant with Global Tower Partners, the largest privately owned tower company in the U.S.

He has met with numerous town officials in an effort to bring more cell towers to Southern New Hampshire.

“The cell service in Rockingham County needs to be improved,” he said. “There are an awful lot of places that aren’t covered very well.”

George said he’s primarily looking at Atkinson, Plaistow, Danville, Sandown and Newton as areas he would like to see get a new tower.

“There is a lack of coverage, especially in the center of those towns,” he said. “I’m looking at elevated positions in those towns that could possibly work for this infrastructure.”

Other areas, including Salem, Windham, Derry and Londonderry, have much better service, according to George.

“It’s because I-93 goes right through there,” he said. “It’s a high-volume area, so the carriers focus on it.”

It’s not just cell tower developers who are exploring coverage gaps.

The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension launched an expansive project last summer.

“We drove every numbered route in New Hampshire during a four- to six-week period,” said Fay Rubin, a project director for UNH Cooperative Extension. “We had a bank of five cellphones from five different carriers and collected signal datas.”

Michael Blair, a program coordinator for UNH Cooperative Extension, said US Cellular, AT&T and Sprint ranked as the best providers. But he said Rockingham County’s coverage was sufficient.

“There appears to be pretty good coverage in the county among all providers,” he said. “It’s flat, which helps get a better signal.”

The goal of the study is to provide data to state and federal authorities who are looking for places to put more towers, Rubin said.

“When funding opportunities come up for new towers, now we will have some concrete information to give them about where it’s really needed,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s very anecdotal.”

Consumers, carriers have different ideas

Carriers also are doing tests on cell coverage. Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Verizon, said the company has specifically designed SUVs with antennas on their roofs to determine which areas are getting adequate coverage.

“In Rockingham County, we’re very well covered,” he said. “We’ve spent over $3 billion over the last 11 years trying to improve coverage in all of New England.”

Although the Verizon spokesman was pleased with how his company covers Rockingham County, he does admit there is always a need to expand.

“We are never satisfied with where we are,” he said. “We are looking at several places, but we keep that close to the vest for competitive reasons.”

Murphy said Verizon launched 4G coverage in Londonderry in May.

Building a new tower is usually a last resort, he said.

“The first inclination is never just to put up a new tower,” he said. “It’s expensive and it’s better for the communities to have less of them.”

Murphy said tower costs generally range from $250,000 to $1 million.

Instead, the carriers actually work together to provide service.

“It’s called co-location,” he said. “If we have a tower, we can collect rent from another carrier who wants to come on. If there’s an area where we want more coverage, then we’re more than happy to jump on someone’s tower.”

The other challenge for carriers is that residents are often oppose tower plans. In 2008, Atkinson residents rejected a $484,000 cellular tower.

“The gating item is aesthetics,” he said. “Where to put it and how it looks, that’s where I have to be creative.”

George said whether it’s a large building with an antenna on top, or some other measure. He just wants to get the signal in an elevated area.

Residents are still frustrated with service, but there are ways to improve it.

“We switched to Sprint and I couldn’t get any calls at home,” said Maureen Heard of Derry. “I kept yelling at people through static. But I called them up and they gave me a booster to put in our house like a router. Ever since then, it’s been great.”

Murphy, the Verizon spokesman, said downloading the latest system update on a device can mean better coverage and connecting to more towers.

But others remain frustrated that more can’t be done.

“I’m surprised,” said Davidson of Derry. “I didn’t think this would still happen in this day and age.”