LACONIA — Cellular telephone carriers in the Lakes Region overstate their coverage areas and provide service so spotty that it is a hazard to the public, local officials stated in a letter to the state’s congressional delegation and the Public Utilities Commission.
“Poor quality or non-existent telecommunications services are jeopardizing the health and safety of our residents and are constraining economic development in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region,” stated the letter signed by Executive Director Jeffrey Hayes of the Lakes Region Planning Commission and numerous municipal officials.
The Lakes Region Planning Commission tested cell reception and produced maps showing major coverage deficiencies.
“Even the major roads in the area, such as Routes 104, 25, 3, 109 and 25 have service below the 5 Mbps (megabits per second) as required by the Federal Communications Commission,” the letter said. “Many residential areas show little to no service.
“Just as telecommunications providers were required to supply landline service decades ago, wireless service has become the ‘life line’ replacement for wired services. The requirements of outdated technologies must be carried forward to the more modern replacement technologies. Failing to do so has serious and well-established safety and economic concerns.”
Cellular telephone service providers such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have online maps showing broad coverage throughout the Lakes Region, but local leaders and residents say the area is actually full of “dead zones,” or areas where they can’t get a cell signal.
Laconia Daily Sun readers, responding to a Facebook question, noted lack of cell service in portions of Laconia, Holderness, Meredith, Gilford, Gilmanton, Franklin, Sandwich and Belmont, among other places. (See story below)
The AT&T online coverage map has a disclaimer saying “there are gaps in coverage that are not shown by this high-level approximation.
“Actual coverage may differ from map graphics and may be affected by terrain, weather, network changes, foliage, buildings, construction, signal strength, high-usage periods, customer equipment, and other factors. AT&T does not guarantee coverage.”
The Federal Communications Commission is overseeing a process in which $4.53 billion in support will be available over 10 years to primarily rural areas that lack 4G LTE cell service. The commission has maps, with information provided by carriers, showing most of New Hampshire currently has such service. Communities have to challenge those maps to compete for the financial support.
Hayes said the challenge procedures are cumbersome, requiring much offroad travel to measure cellular signals in unpopulated areas. Instead, his organization has been testing cell service along major routes.
“Because this is such a critical issue to our 31 communities located in the geographic center of our state, we are continuing to perform testing in the Lakes Region with the expectation that the FCC will pay attention to the data we are collecting,” he said.
Other towns throughout the state are also challenging these maps, and the state Public Utility Commission is providing assistance in that process.
Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced last month that the agency is investigation whether carriers have submitted incorrect coverage maps.
Hayes said urban areas tend to have better service than rural regions.
“Carriers have a strong economic interest to do cream skimming of the urban areas,” he said. “There is a lot of business and money to be made.”
Hayes said he is frequently on the road and notices first-hand a lack of coverage in many areas of the region.
“I'm constantly getting calls dropped and having my phone lock up on me when I am trying to download information,” he said. “You see it all over the place.
“We want people to live, work and play here, but if people can't drive around and keep in touch with business and they miss an important phone call or deal because a phone call gets dropped or they can't look up the information they need, it undermines that prospect for the regional economy.”
Representatives of Verizon and T-Mobile did not reply to requests for comments. AT&T provided a 5-month-old news release saying it made $60 million in investments in New Hampshire wireless and wired networks from 2015 to 2017.
“These investments boost reliability, coverage, speed and overall performance for residents and businesses,” the release stated. “They also improve critical services that support public safety and first responders.
Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T-New England said the company is committed to enhancing its New Hampshire network.
“We are working closely with state and local leaders to boost capacity and speed and provide the necessary backbone for the next generation of technology,” she said.
Bristol dead zone
One of the major trouble spots for cellular coverage is the town of Bristol, where Sugar Hill blocks the signal from a cell tower on Bridgewater Mountain.
Town Administrator Nicholas Coates said much of the town has no cell coverage.
“We asked our police department to drive around town with four cell phones set up with an app pre-approved by FCC and the PUC to gather data,” he said. “It pings every minute, looking for 5 megabit per second service download speeds.
“That translated into maps that Lakes Region Planning put together showing what we believe to be the truth on the ground — our cell coverage in town is not consistent with maps officially released by the FCC and the carriers that show full coverage.
“No one here believes we have full coverage, far from it.”
He said the town’s fire department, police department and water and sewer department did not have sufficient cell coverage until, at the town’s request, Verizon put in special booster devices at these buildings.
“Now, in these buildings we have coverage, but as soon as you walk a couple hundred feet outside of our bubble, coverage is non-existent,” he said.
“It’s a big-time problem for our community.”
Coates said there are considerable business implications associated with lack of cell service. Many businesses use cell service to handle credit card transactions. It also powers navigation applications.
He said the town has received a $130,000 grant to lay high-speed fiber optic cable through Bristol. This could provide an impetus for improving cell service in the area, perhaps through a new cell tower or other devices.
Portions of nearby New Hampton also lack cell service, said Town Administrator Barbara Lucas.
“Cell companies are representing they have service when they do not,” she said. “Some places along Route 104 heading into Bridgewater and in Coolidge Woods, and on Interstate 93 heading north, calls get dropped.”
David Katz, who represents New Hampton on the Lakes Region Planning Commission, said many factors contribute to cell coverage deficiencies. On the technical side, the hilly and rocky nature of the area can cause problems. Even the budding of trees in the spring can decrease coverage, he said.
There are also local political considerations. Some towns, residents or businesses may not be in favor of having a cell tower in their backyard.
Katz, who formerly worked as an executive for the Bechtel engineering company and helped deploy wireless networks, said the rural nature of this area provides a financial disincentive for carriers to improve coverage.
“The big problem is we don’t have enough customers to really make a difference,” he said. “Until there are sufficient numbers of customers, carriers are reluctant to add additional coverage.
“We are not like a burgeoning neighborhood where developments are coming in.”
He also said cell service providers have a financial interest in exaggerating their coverage areas.
“If you were a carrier, you wouldn’t want to show these huge gaps in any particular area,” Katz said.
“This has been an issue for decades, in my own experience. I don’t know how it could be resolved, perhaps with more FCC oversight on carriers to get their maps in order. But, frankly, when you have to rely on the FCC, today, with the current regime in Washington, you’re not going to get the love from them that carriers will.”