Cell phone coverage is an Island mystery that resists solution
"Can you hear me now?" The answer to a familiar and often annoying question asked by cell phone users on Martha's Vineyard varies from yes, no to maybe.
Recently, members of The Times news department set out on a road trip to answer the question for our readers. Armed with tips from Island cell phone users about the good, the dead, and the spotty when it comes to coverage, two Times reporters and three summer interns set out in a 1996 Jeep Cherokee for what would be a 72-mile road trip around Martha's Vineyard.
The team stopped a total of 21 times along the way to phone home, in this case The Times office on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven and test the cell phone service provided by Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
Despite trying the herd approach to improve cell phone reception, the Times staff encounters the Menemsha Beach dead zone. From left, summer interns Rebecca Rattner, Jesse Husid and Julia Spiro, and reporters Janet Hefler and Aubrey Gibavic.
It will come as no surprise to Island cell phone users that coverage varied by provider as well as location. The test also provided a source of intramural competition along the way: "I've got one bar - I can still make a call." "No you can't - that's impossible."
By the end of the day, as the accompanying map shows, the team reached the conclusion that Cingular and Verizon provide the best overall Island coverage.
For this reporter, my unfamiliarity with my new cell phone's operations loomed large, traveling as I was with members of the wireless generation. I was the only one in the car who had grown up using rotary dial phones.
The mystery of it all
Wireless phones convert sounds to radio waves, which travel through the air until they reach a receiver at a nearby base station, a tower where antennas for transmitting or receiving the signals are located. The base station sends the call through the phone network until it reaches the person called.
As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) explains it, topography, cell site capacity, and network architecture (where antennas are located) all limit cell phone reliability. Seasonal factors figure in as well, such as leaves on trees, which can interfere with signals during summer months.
Darcy Richardson waits to get her car off-Island.
Dropped calls occur when a cell phone user is on the move and there are few or no cell sites in the area of travel. As we drove around, sometimes a dip in the road or a drive from one side of a parking lot to the next caused a dramatic loss in signal.
Up-Island beach areas, places where people are likely to want to use their cell phones, provide spotty coverage, at best. Just beyond the entrance to Squibnocket Beach in Chilmark, we spotted a car pulled over with both driver and passenger talking on cell phones, most likely catching some waves of the non-ocean kind.
In areas where a cell phone user is outside the home calling area or when a call made by a subscriber of one wireless service provider uses the facilities of a second provider, cell phones indicate "roaming." My Sprint phone went to "digital roaming" at Gay Head lighthouse and "analog roaming" at Squibnocket Beach.
For those who need to call home from the grocery store to ask that familiar question, "Got milk?" a walk to the parking lot might be necessary. My Sprint phone works inside the Edgartown Stop & Shop but not inside the Vineyard Haven store.
One of the fundamental issues for cell phone companies is that although their customers agree they want better coverage, they do not always agree on where they think the towers and antenna systems should go.
The passage of the federal Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996, placed limits on the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage. The TCA expressly barred towns from arbitrarily rejecting an application to site a wireless facility or basing a rejection on the perceived environmental or health effects of radio frequency emissions.
From right, Deb Ares listens in on some interesting conversation while daughters Monique and Nicole chat with friends. Photo by Ben Scott
Although the TCA made the construction of wireless networks a high priority, the law left it up to cities and towns to control where the facilities are sited. Under the act, the onus is on the carrier to prove the need for a specific site.
In 2004, the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) hosted a meeting of Island planning board members to discuss the cellular tower issue. The MVC now includes communications facilities on the checklist for determining whether a project must undergo review as a development of regional impact (DRI).
The MVC requires concurrence on the construction or erection of any personal telecommunications tower that would exceed 35 feet in height measured from the natural grade of the site where it will be located. Reconstruction of or replacement of an existing tower on the same site, provided it does not exceed its original, height does not require review.
Signals of change
Over the last several years, sometimes in reaction to proposals for towers, the Island's six towns created zoning bylaws specifically designed to address wireless communications facilities. Tower height limits vary from town to town, as do setback requirements.
Initially, towns made little effort to attract cellular companies to municipal sites. As a result, private property owners often were the beneficiaries of antenna lease fees.
For example, there is a cellular antenna located on the Wesley House in Oak Bluffs and another in the steeple of the Old Stone Church in Vineyard Haven. A cellular tower is located on property owned by David Flanders of Chilmark in West Tisbury off Old Courthouse Road and another is located on property in Chilmark behind Peaked Hill.
But cellular antennas have also sprouted on town water towers in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and Tisbury. And Oak Bluffs now requires that all freestanding cellular towers be built within certain areas designated on town land near the landfill. The height limit is 100 feet above the ground.
In January, Aquinnah voters approved a set of zoning bylaws designed to allow for cellular telephone companies willing to use a wireless communication system that does not rely on high towers. Aquinnah created a special wireless overlay district that allows for the placement of equipment at the town landfill needed to operate a distributed antenna system (DAS), a less obtrusive wireless communication system that uses fiber optic cable and a network of short antennas, which are most often placed on telephone poles in strategic locations.
Years ago, Chilmark voters supported a request by public safety organizations, including the Coast Guard, to place antennas on Peaked Hill in order to improve radio reception. Due to existing conservation restrictions, placing the antennas required a special act of the state legislature.
At the time, voters expressed opposition to allowing cellular companies to share antenna space and language was inserted specifically barring commercial use.
But times and opinions have changed. Chilmarkers are increasingly in favor of improved cellular telephone reception.
In a meeting on July 31, Chilmark selectmen met with their Aquinnah counterparts to discuss ways the two towns can cooperate in creating a DAS system. Chilmark leaders have asked Aquinnah's consultant to provide a preliminary assessment of how Chilmark might go about creating a DAS system.
Frank Fenner, Chilmark selectman and point man on the project, said he strongly believes in the DAS system because of its many advantages, most significantly the unobtrusive nature of the system.
At the same time that Aquinnah and Chilmark are exploring a DAS system, a proposal last October by Cingular Wireless to put three wireless antennas inside the steeple of the Community Baptist Church of Gay Head could provide a test of MVC authority.
The Baptist Church was established in Aquinnah in 1693 and is considered the oldest Native American Baptist Church in continuous ministry in the United States. Its congregation is down to about six year-round residents, who could use the $1,500 a month Cingular would pay to lease the steeple space to keep the church going.
Aquinnah's Planning Board denied the project based on the town's zoning bylaws that prohibit wireless communication facilities within 500 feet of any residence and within 1,500 feet of a playground or school. The church is located in close proximity to a playground and the Aquinnah library.
The town also referred the project to the MVC as a Development of Regional Impact.
Last Nov. 2, Cingular Wireless protested the denial as unlawful in two lawsuits filed against the town in state Land Court and the U.S. First District Court in Boston.
The company claimed that Aquinnah violated the Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996, a federal law that limits the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage.
Cingular argued that the project's denial was rooted in the supposed health effects of radio frequency emissions, and that the TCA expressly barred towns from rejecting a wireless facility site based on those grounds.
The district court judge stayed the proceedings until August 31, recommending that the MVC complete its DRI review by that time.
During the first MVC hearing on July 27, Cingular's attorney questioned the MVC's jurisdiction in the case. The next hearing is Sept. 21.