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Irene shows need for better cell service

Monday, April 2, 2012
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— Fierce winds and constant rainfall were pounding the tiny town of Blenheim alongside the flooding Schoharie Creek as Tropical Storm Irene bore down on the region Aug. 28.

For a while, Blenheim Supervisor Robert Mann Jr. was getting updates from the county informing him how high the water might get.

Then the phone calls stopped altogether and the floodwater kept rising.

Mann couldn’t learn if the flooding was going to continue — the infrastructure for land-based telephone lines was getting torn up, as was state Route 30, the primary entrance and exit to the town.

It’s a situation officials in Schoharie County are hoping to avoid the next time there’s a disaster.

The county issued a request for proposals this month hoping to draw interest from mobile phone companies that might make use of an unused tower sitting on Brown Mountain in North Blenheim.

“A lot of the phone lines were down even preceding the peak flow of water. There was no phone service in town, anywhere in town, by land line. So I stopped getting any updates from Schoharie County,” Mann said.

The lack of communication persisted for days after the flood.

Mann recalls cars lining state Route 30 thinking they could pass through, but much of the road wasn’t there anymore.

Mann said he needed to let emergency officials know the road had to be closed. Cars and trucks were backed up and trying to find different ways north.

“We ended up driving a couple miles up the road and borrowing someone’s cellphone where there was a bit of service. I was trying to get ahold of [the county] to relay a message that we needed some help.”

After a few days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided some emergency satellite phones, Mann said.

There are emergency alert systems governments make use of to send emails and text messages out during emergencies, but neither are of much use in areas with no power and no cell coverage.

Schoharie County Data Processing Director Stanley France said the mountainous area in southern Schoharie County makes it difficult to ensure wireless phone coverage.

“My best guess is it would really take four towers down through the valley to get that coverage down here,” France said.

Counting the tower on Brown Mountain, there are three towers in the valley. Two of them were built at a time when the mobile phone business was just starting to blossom, but they weren’t used, France said.

There’s clear coverage to the north, along Interstate 88, France said. One of the towers visible from that highway is completely full and unable to accommodate any more gear.

The county’s request went out two weeks ago, and there’s been no response yet, France said.

There’s a lot involved in the decision to expand coverage, Verizon spokesman John O’Malley said.

Communications companies like Verizon first look to see if there’s existing towers or other structures available that can speed up the process.

But wireless service requires the towers to be visible to one another in order to transmit signals, he said.

“The signal won’t go through the mountain,” O’Malley said.

It typically takes several individual sites to cover a mountainous area, he said.

The fact that an area has a small population doesn’t defeat the idea of expanding service, O’Malley said.

“The number of people doesn’t necessarily drive the decision,” he said.

Verizon works not only to expand coverage but, most recently, it’s been investing money to expand capabilities because people are doing so much more with their new phones that connect to the Internet.

“For the last several years, the bulk of the money has gone to increasing capacity versus expanding coverage,” he said.

O’Malley said the company received the county’s request and is looking it over.

“We have a very strong record of providing service in rural areas, and we want to offer services to as many places as we can,” O’Malley said.

 
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