GILFORD — Kelly Cornick has had enough.
“Something has to happen,” the Gilford resident said while discussing the problems she is experiencing with dropped calls and intermittent service on her cell phone. “It’s interfering with police getting 911 calls, and that’s a problem. There was a lightning strike near here, and somebody could [have gotten] killed.”
Cornick is not alone in being concerned about cellular coverage. Gilford Police Sgt. Christopher Jacques said he uses his cell phone for personal and professional calls, and said he has seen a dramatic drop in service by his carrier.
“Verizon’s service is completely different from what it was 11 months ago,” he said. “The total lack of a signal is a problem.”
Jacques said he has spent a lot of time with technical support, but “no one wants to commit to an answer,” he said.
Cornick also has been speaking with Verizon supervisors and said she was told the answer lies in a new cell tower.
“The supervisor said the interested public should go to town hall and look for land for a new tower,” she said. “One supervisor said they have all the information you’ll ever need about getting a tower up on your property.”
David Weissmann, Verizon’s media contact, said he is unaware of any attempt to put up a new cell tower, and suggested that the solution is for people to turn on WiFi calling, which uses broadband services and frees up capacity on the cell towers to alleviate congestion.
“There’s coverage and there’s capacity, and when the capacity is crowded, it can have an impact,” he said.
Cornick believes the problem is associated with the additional tourism and increased cell phone use in the Lakes Region.
“The Verizon tower is currently congested, and people get dropped calls every time a plane flies over,” she said. “The pilots agree that it’s a problem.”
Laconia Airport Manager Marv Emerson denies that the problem has any association with air traffic.
“The idea that increased air traffic would decrease coverage is baloney,” he said. “It would make sense that Verizon and other carriers are not equipped to handle the load from the tourist and population increases.”
He said pilots do use cell phones to check on the weather and particulars about the airport, so in a congested market, it could contribute to the overall cell phone usage, but it is not the air traffic that is causing the problem.
“If that’s the rumor, I want to nip it in the bud,” he said.
The Lakes Region Planning Commission has been looking at cellular coverage and has found that the carriers’ claims are grossly exaggerated.
“They’re claiming 90 percent coverage, but we’re seeing 40 to 50 percent as a rough estimate,” said LRPC Executive Director Jeffrey Hayes.
The planners have been mapping the signals after learning that there is a major federal grant that would provide funding for rural areas that do not have 4G coverage, which provides at least 5MB of capacity, the minimum necessary for video streaming.
“We’re not eligible if the carriers say we already have the coverage,” Hayes said. “There are a lot of indications that the capacity is being outstripped.”
The state’s Site Evaluation Committee and the Public Utilities Commission have found that New Hampshire is well under the carriers’ claims, Hayes said, and the planning commission’s testing for signals backs that up. The Federal Communications Commission has launched an inquiry into the coverage claims.
Local officials have sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation to complain of the “poor quality and non-existent telecommunications services” that “are jeopardizing the health and safety of our residents and are constraining economic development in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.”
“It’s a well-known problem,” Hayes said, “and it’s not surprising at all that, if a community quadruples in population, it would overwhelm the infrastructure.”
He said many of the carriers rent space on the towers, and “maybe they’re not paying their lease where they don’t get a sufficient return on the expenditure.”
Jacques agrees that it may be a case of carriers not renewing their leases or owners of towers deciding not to rent to a particular carrier.
What he is sure about is that the maps the LRPC did last year, which differed drastically from the carriers’ claims of coverage, do not reflect the coverage today. He borrowed three devices to map the coverage on local streets, and saw a significant decline in the signals.
“It’s clear that, if people thought it was an issue in January, it’s an even hotter topic now,” Jacques said.
For emergency services, having reliable communications is critical, and the state is implementing FirstNet, a program through AT&T, to meet that need. Hayes said it is intended to boost coverage by supplying phones with priority access in times of emergency.
That interests Jacques, who said he is hoping to borrow one of the phones to determine AT&T’s coverage with them.
“A lot of officers who use their phones for work and personal use are thinking of switching over,” he said.
FirstNet has agreed to hold a New England conference in New Hampshire on Sept. 10 and 11, with the first day dedicated to New Hampshire public safety officials. The second day will be open to those in all six New England states.
As for everyone else, LRPC's Hayes said there is a need to work with the carriers.
“Cell is sometimes the best broadband coverage people have,” he said. “The line is getting blurred between broadband and cell phone reception. When you have over 5MB on the cell phone, you can stream movies and things like that, so the whole discussion leads into the whole area of broadband as well.”
Hayes said that new capacity is being added, but it’s getting eaten up faster than the infrastructure is being built. Even in Laconia, which has greater density and better coverage, there are areas with poor reception.
Hayes said robocalls also are a capacity issue for the carriers, which he said is why they are now taking measures such as offering free software to block such calls.
“Adequate coverage is a huge issue,” Hayes said. “It affects us in many different ways — health, public services, emergency response — it bleeds through almost everything.”
He noted that the town of Bristol obtained a Northern Borders Grant allowing the town to boost cellular coverage through fiber optic trunk lines used by School Administrative Unit 4. The Northern Border Grants do not cover all Lakes Region communities but they are available in Belknap, Grafton, and Carroll counties. Twelve communities in Carroll County also formed a consortium to help deal with coverage shortfalls.
Hayes said the future may lie in solutions such as Chesterfield’s. That town took advantage of a new state law to issue bonds that pay for fiber lines to every home and business, in a public-private partnership with Consolidated Communications.
Voters at town meeting approved the issuance of $1.8 million in bonds to help build the network, and Consolidated is covering the other $2.5 million estimated cost of stringing the fiber. The town will pay off the bond through a $10 monthly fee to broadband subscribers.
Hayes said the town of Danbury is already looking at Chesterfield’s solution.