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More hellos than goodbyes: Topography forces cell phone companies to weigh cost-benefit of erecting new towers

coverAs long as Realtor Sammie Powell leans back in his chair in his home office, he can talk on his cell phone all day long. But as soon as he stands up to reach for something across his desk, his service goes from good to nonexistent.

“I could be sitting at my desk, and if I lean over, I might not pick up,” said Powell, who lives and works from his home in Villages of Plott Creek neighborhood in Waynesville.


Powell’s situation is not unusual. Villages of Plott Creek sits just five miles from downtown Waynesville, but residents still struggle to get proper cell phone access in their homes.

Because of topography and cell tower locations, pockets of Western North Carolina have spotty cell phone service or none at all. Particularly troublesome areas are those nestled in narrow hollers, up against mountain faces, in remote areas or near national forest land — but depending on one’s cell phone provider, service can be touch and go anywhere. It’s a daily frustration for many mountain residents trying to make a call or waiting on an important email to come through on their smart phone.

While many Americans have divested themselves of landlines and transitioned solely to cell phones over the past decade, many here, like Powell, remain married to landline phones for home or business purposes to make sure they are never unreachable no matter where they are.

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Those with spotty service learn to deal with it, Powell said. They know where in their house their cell phone works and where it doesn’t and adjust accordingly.

“At our house, there are certain places where you get it and certain places where you don’t get it,” he said.

For Powell though, a finicky cell signal in his home is better compared to some who have no service or others who have to stand on their deck to take a call.

During the last decade, cell phone service in the mountains has improved significantly thanks to the addition of towers — a response by cell companies as more people use the portable devices in their everyday life, not just to make phone calls but to check their email, send family members pictures or post to Facebook.

“Everyone has a cell phone, and it is becoming more and more a fact that people have a smart phone,” said Josh Gelina, a spokesman for AT&T. “They are living more and more of their life on a cell phone.”

Companies are willing to expand service, including voice and phone Internet capabilities, to areas that demonstrate a demand, which is why people in towns such as Waynesville, Sylva and Franklin have a strong connection.

“As population grows, there is better and better service,” said Kris Boyd, Haywood County planner.

However, head into less populated territory like Glenville in Jackson County, Fines Creek in Haywood County or Big Cove in Cherokee, and people completely lose service.

People have learned the exact spot where their conversation will be ended. 

“You know going down the road that I am going to be dropped or I am not going to have service,” said Macon County Planner Matt Mason.

As a Realtor, Powell shows homes across Western North Carolina. Although he has never heard anyone say they didn’t buy a home somewhere because of a lack of cell phone service, he said it likely factors into the decision.

Economic analyst Tom Tveidt in Haywood County compared cell phone service to the expansion of the railroad. The railroad afforded people and products greater mobility and access to places and things. The railroad, like cell phone and Internet service today, was essential to the economic expansion of a region.

“It is important,” Tveidt said. “That is always important for the kind of industries trying to move to places.”

But just as the rugged topography made the advent of rail, roads and power lines slow to arrive in the mountains decades ago, it is likewise stymieing the reach of cell phone service today.

Different types of businesses, such as finance companies or call centers, might be reticent to move to Western North Carolina if technology is not available. Businesses tend to open in or near towns where it is easier to attain strong cell service and Internet capabilities. 

But even on a personal level, “We are reliant on it,” Tveidt said. “As we are sitting here, I looked at several proposals on my phone. I took it for granted that I would be able to do that.”

When something is readily available, people do not give much thought to it. It is normal. However, it is difficult not to notice when something as everyday as cell phone service isn’t accessible.

“You sort of wonder how we did it in the old days,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner.


No longer a novelty

Not that long ago, it was odd to see someone walking down the street talking on a cell phone.

When cell phone companies first started erecting towers in Haywood County in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many viewed them as an unsightly blemish on the landscape. Public hearings for proposed cell towers would regularly attract 100 people or more, Boyd said.

“Now, you are lucky if two people show up to speak,” Boyd said. “Everybody uses it. Everybody understands it.”

More often these days, the public greets proposed cell towers with a hurrah.

In Macon County, a cell tower proposal just four years ago brought out more than 50 people to voice their opposition. Many of them lived within a certain distance from where the new tower went.

“Nobody wants a valley they’ve looked at for 20 years to have a pole sticking out of it,” said Mason, the county planner.

But once the tower was there, Mason has not heard any complaints, which he attributed to a culture shift.

“Their mind has changed; their thinking has changed a little bit,” Mason said. “People are dependant on cell phones.”

Counties have also adopted policies to keep the cell towers from sticking out too badly. There’s a limit on how high they can rise above the tree line, and antennas can only stick out a couple feet from the main tower structure, keeping it contained.

Because Western North Carolina is so densely populated by trees and tall, thick mountains, the digital signal used by cell phones does not travel far, sometimes only a few miles.

“I barely have cell phone service, and I am four miles from town,” said Kevin Seagle, Swain County’s building inspector.

Swain County only has seven cell towers — not nearly enough to reach every nook and cranny of the county. Like other counties in Western North Carolina, the county population is fairly scattered around, so cell companies must figure out if the coverage a new tower would add is worth the investment.

“Are they going to spend $1 million or $500,000 when there is not a need,” Boyd asked rhetorically. “These folks are very smart.”


The science of cell towers

Cell phone providers such as AT&T or Verizon, both of which have towers in Western North Carolina, must take into account population, demand, topography and land availability when figuring out where to place a new tower or whether to put their antennas on an existing tower. The goal is to cover as much area as possible.

“You are trying to reach large swaths of territory,” Gelina said.

Companies must also figure out how a new tower will fit into its existing network. Signals must be able to relay from tower to tower — so the goal isn’t simply to reach dead zones but be close enough to also reach an existing tower.

“We can’t just randomly put a tower out in the middle of nowhere,” said Karen Shultz, a spokeswoman for Verizon. “It would just be a tower out there, not connecting to anything.”

Cell service providers must build out from their already existent networks.

Companies will not expand to areas where there isn’t a large enough customer base to justify the cost.

“Jackson County, you have much less coverage because there are fewer people who want our coverage,” Gelina said.

However, in Waynesville for example, AT&T expanded its coverage because of the high rate of traffic it tracked in that area. It could not sustain the flow to phone calls, emails, Facebook posts and text messages so the company increased its capacity.

“It was dropping calls,” Gelina said. “There is a need for it.”

In addition to monitoring traffic on current cell phone towers, AT&T also has an application for smart phones, called Mark This Spot, which allows people to denote places where there is no service or simply poor service. Enough feedback can push the company to look at, Gelina said.

Verizon was one of the first, if not the first, cell service provider to move into Western North Carolina more than a decade ago. 

“We have been really aggressive about our expansion,” Shultz said. “Year after year, you will see (our coverage map) become more dense.”

Shultz said Verizon spent $111 million expanding and maintaining coverage in North Carolina last year, though neither spokesperson would comment on how much it costs to build new cell towers. Nor could either speak specifically to the number of cell towers needed to cover the mountains versus flat regions.

“You just need more of them in the mountains,” Gelina said.

The reach of a cell tower signal depends on the surrounding peaks and valleys, how dense the tree coverage is, the height of the tower and the frequency of the signal used.

“There are just hundreds of variables,” Shultz said.


SMN fans weigh in

SMN called on its Facebook fans to sound off on the issue of spotty cell service in the mountains. Here’s a sample of the feedback we got.

Smoky Mountain News: How would you describe cell phone service in the mountains? How do dead spots affect your daily life?

Dry Master Carpet Care: For me the best description would be frustrating. At home, we had to go out on our “phone deck” to make a call. Walk in a store and try to look up something and walk everywhere around the store for a connection.

Susan Lynn Fillmore: It’s getting better all the time!!!

Brittney Burns: In Otto in Macon County, I do not get any service. I don’t get any at my mom’s house in Whittier in Jackson County either. It is aggravating!

Beet L Bailey: It is getting better, mine works great. But it’s over-expensive because there are not many towers and providers here. I pay too much.

Andre Paddle Faster Rodriguez: It used to be if you didn’t have Verizon, you couldn’t get much of a signal. I think there are a lot more towers around now. Probably much better.

Yvette McClure: I do not have a problem with mine. The only place I find I cannot get reception would be going into the (national) park. If there is a dead spot, it’s not big enough to do anything except end my call, lol. And then I call whoever back.

Samantha Faust: Where I live, I get great reception. However, there is very, very little service once you pass WCU and start heading towards East La Porte, Caney Fork, Tuckasegee, and Little Canada. It’s very frustrating.

Darlene McKinley Mauffray: When I am in the mountains don’t need cell phone service. Suits me just fine. I am there to enjoy myself and leave all that at home. So it don’t bother me at all with no service.

Sandee Wright: Am sitting here in the mountains, with AT&T, on 4G (not “limited”) pretty as you please. Precious little in the way of dead spots. Color me happy.

Kim Clayton: Where I live there is poor service so I have to use Frontier for my landline. This is frustrating to pay for both lines especially since the rates keep going up. I wish there was better cell phone reception.

Amy Damian Bermudez: We was stuck in the July storm last year with no service... Not good when you have family that is worried about you.

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