East End residents from East Quogue to Amagansett who pay for AT&T cell service shared similar tales of woe this week: stories of dropped calls, delayed messages and poor signals.
Kelly Bush said her father, Gene Bush, who lives in East Quogue, has a heart condition and carries his cellphone with him at all times. But he has trouble receiving a signal at his home, spreading fear among his family members that he will not be able to make a call when an emergency arises.
David Aronstam, a Manhattan attorney who owns a home in Sag Harbor, said the signal for his iPhone5 disappears for stretches along Noyac Road and in other pockets of the village. “On the beaches, forget about it,” he said in a recent interview.
The experience drove him to file a complaint against AT&T with the Federal Communications Commission. “Dealing with AT&T directly is too much frustration,” he explained.
He, like Ms. Bush, said changing carriers is problematic, because they were grandfathered in with unlimited data plans, which are otherwise costly.
Marjorie Oxman, who lives in Remsenburg and has the same carrier, said she is able to receive a signal on her iPhone only in her driveway, despite the AT&T map showing her house as having “good” service. She said she paid $200 for a home microcell, which acts like a miniature cell tower. Still, she said she still experiences dropped calls and does not receive incoming ones. She, too, said she would pay more for unlimited data from another service provider.
Ellen Webner, a public relations representative for AT&T Mobility, would not explain, one way or the other, if the company has coverage issues on the South Fork. She did note, however, that the carrier is working “to upgrade its network for capacity and to bring 4G LTE as quickly as possible.”
Ms. Webner also declined to share the number of towers or cell sites that her company currently has on the East End, stating that the information was not publicly disclosed, and refused to share any details about possible new cell sites that AT&T is seeking to install. “The number of towers does not necessarily mean we have better coverage,” she explained.
Southampton Town records show AT&T having a total of 17 cell sites—some on towers, others on antennas or structures, such as water towers—serving the municipality, as well as two personal communication service sites, which support web browsing.
Clare Vail, a town planner, said AT&T had previously filed an application seeking permission to construct a new 100-foot tower north of the railroad tracks off Butter Lane in Bridgehampton. In May, the Southampton Town Planning Board determined that the proposed tower would have a negative impact on the area for aesthetic reasons. The company now has the option of amending its application or addressing the town’s concerns in a draft environmental impact statement, Ms. Vail said.
She explained that the portion of the code that governs applications for new towers was designed to encourage cell service providers to propose them in specific regions that are more suitable for such a use, such as industrial zones, or to place antennas on existing towers and structures.
Eric Schantz, a senior planner for East Hampton Town, said there is a total of eight cell sites for AT&T throughout his municipality. He and Ms. Vail said both towns frequently receive applications from cell service providers seeking to upgrade their existing cell sites, but Mr. Schantz did not recall any applications to build new towers or install new cell sites in recent years.
Receiving permission to upgrade the technology at existing sites is a relatively easy process, he explained, but it can be difficult to receive permission for a new site. He and Ms. Vail said both towns encourage the companies to place antennas on existing poles whenever possible to reduce the visual impact.
Mr. Schantz said he thinks one reason it is difficult to obtain information on where coverage is good and where it is poor for individual carriers is because the companies fear their competitors will target those areas. “That information is very difficult to get out of carriers and their representatives, if not impossible,” he said.
Southampton Town completed a Wireless Communications Plan in 2007, which includes a service map that shows scattered patches of “good service” inside buildings, with the majority of the town labeled as “fair” or “good” in terms of coverage inside buildings, and “good” along most highways. Only a very small area in North Sea and along the water in Sagaponack were labeled as having “fair” to “spotty” coverage, and no areas were labeled as having “fair” to “no coverage” outdoors.
The plan concluded that of the five commercial cell service providers in the town—AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Nextel and Verizon—most required additional antennas to improve their coverage, and only AT&T appeared to offer “adequate coverage” throughout the municipality. Ms. Webner also pointed out that the other networks face difficulty in providing complete coverage.
Still, those living or traveling in areas with poor coverage, regardless of what the plans conclude, said they are growing frustrated with the problem. Part of the issue, according to some residents, is the information that some are receiving from their carriers when they call to complain about service.
Michele Meduski, an East Quogue resident who has had AT&T for close to a decade, said she called to complain about the lack of service in her home, and was given a credit to purchase a microcell unit that she could set up in her house. Ms. Meduski, who has two children, Shawn and Shelby, also said the company representative she spoke with told her that AT&T is not willing to invest the funds necessary to upgrade its towers so that they can handle the increase in population in the summer months. “Every year at this time I’ve had this problem,” Ms. Meduski said.
Her children’s friends, meanwhile, have Verizon as their carrier—and have excellent coverage in her home.
Ms. Webner pointed out that there are things AT&T customers can do at home to help improve their service, such as making sure their phones are up to date with the most current software upgrades. She added that the microcells can be effective in enhancing coverage, and noted that she contacted Ms. Bush to explore the option of installing one in her father’s home.
Ms. Webner also explained that AT&T takes steps prior to events that are expected to increase demand on its communications system, such as last month’s U.S. Women’s Open held at Sebonack. In those cases, the company brings in additional equipment called COWs, or cell sites on wheels, that will allow for higher volume, she said.