Sprint coverage spotty in towerless Oak Bluffs

The temporary Sprint cellular antennae falls short, subscribers say. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Updated March 20, 1:20 pm

Sprint cell phone customers, and presumably their friends and families, have been having a difficult time getting a signal in Oak Bluffs of late. Sprint coverage has been compromised since mid-February, when the Oak Bluffs Water District began needed maintenance that required Sprint and AT&T to remove their wireless antennas from atop the town water tower.

Both Sprint and AT&T placed a cell site on wheels (COW) next to the tower as a temporary measure. While ATT placed a COW with a tower approximately 80 feet tall, the Sprint COW tower is only 55 feet tall.

Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile also use the Sprint antenna. It is likely those users have also been affected, said Linda Sibley, owner of Island Electronics, an AT&T and Sprint dealer.

Kevin Johnson, superintendent of the Oak Bluffs water district, said both Sprint and AT&T were given warning about the maintenance work back in November. “They knew we were opening bids on January 29,” Mr. Johnson told the Times. “We wanted them to be off no later than the first or second week of February. AT&T has been more cooperative. The location is fine if they bring in towers that are big enough. The onus is on them.”

In an email to The Times Tuesday, Mark Elliott, spokesman for Sprint, said that with help from the town of Oak Bluffs, Sprint had relocated its COW to better serve customers in the area. “Also, some landscape work was done that should enhance coverage in the area,” Mr. Elliott said.

In the meantime, Mr. Elliott said customers who are having difficulty can purchase an Airave 2.5 Plus for $100 plus taxes and fees, and they have the option to add unlimited calling on the Airave for $25 plus taxes and surcharges. “We recommend people check settings on their handset or tablet to make sure roaming is set to Sprint only — sometimes that helps,” he said. “They can also allow roaming to networks outside of Sprint, which may or not cost extra, according to their plan.”

Longtime Sprint customer Andrew Farrissey, president of Farrissey Tele-comm, a company that installs underground pipes and wiring for telecommunication companies, was not mollified by the assurances of the Sprint spokesman.

“At my house I have a 70 percent drop rate,” he said in a phone call with The Times, using a phone from a different carrier. “My call forwarding doesn’t work, and that’s important to my business. It’s ironic that I have better cell phone service in Aquinnah than I do in O.B.  After I complained they sent me an Airave and tried to charge me for it, and I spend $20,000 a year for cell phone service for my business.”

The water tower maintenance — expected to take 10 to 12 weeks — was delayed due to weather, so Sprint customers could potentially be bereft of a signal at the beginning of the busy summer season.

“I don’t have an engineering degree, but Sprint pulled the wrong club out of the bag here,” Mr. Farrissey said, referring to the shorter tower on the Sprint COW. “They should at least tell us this is going on. We shouldn’t have to buy an Airave in their coverage zone.”

March 20, 1:20 pm: This story was updated to include information that Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile also utilize the Sprint antenna.