AT&T cell service is fading fast
Silence is deafening from corporate resources
During the big fire last year, Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties lost 71 percent of all landline, cell and internet service, giving our emergency responders cause to rethink the entire communication process for disasters. While service was restored throughout the county, for the most part, it seems to have been deteriorating in Kenwood and Oakmont for AT&T cell customers since April.
“People could die because of this,” Thaddaeus Phelps said. A Kenwood resident living near Pythian Road, Phelps is a nurse in the cardiac catheterization lab at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, and husband of Kenwood Press editor Sarah Phelps. He needs his cell phone and pager for on-call emergency hours, and he needs them both to work, each as back up for the other. When he’s needed, he’s needed in a hurry.
AT&T’s repeated assurances that the problem would be fixed weren’t reflected in any improved service. Repeated cell phone resets resulted in restored services for a matter of minutes.
A May 12 post on the same topic on Nextdoor Kenwood by village resident Robin Lane set off a litany of complaints by others who are getting little or no reception in the area.
“Over the last several months our reception has become really bad,” wrote Lane. “We have talked to them several times and nothing seems to improve it. Does anybody who lives in the same area have a different company that gives them better reception?”
The answer was an emphatic “yes,” from dozens of people.
While AT&T has not responded to several requests for information on the situation, representatives have admitted to several irate customers that they are having some problems with one or more cell towers.
“My dad called 6-1-1 [technical support] from his phone the other day and the AT&T rep told him that there is a cell tower down or in need of repairs in our area (that they have been working on for months) and that is why all our phones say ‘no service,’” Shannon Parker said, who works with her father in a real estate business in Kenwood.
“Since bad reception has been our norm over the years, I hadn’t really noticed that of late it’s gone from merely bad to non-existent,” Kenwood resident Peter von York posted. “But now that I see this thread, I realize that things have deteriorated over the past couple of weeks.”
Tracking down cell towers and transmission points is difficult in the absence of any clear rules or regulations concerning cell phone service. Since cell service was not classified as a “utility” when these services were being established, operators are not subject to the rules that apply to regular, copper wire telephone services. Telephones were required to be made available to city and country residents to ensure adequate coverage. Not so with cell service.
All cell phone providers concentrate on high density urban service areas, and add rural services as an afterthought. A few minutes searching the online Service Area Maps leaves the impression that they are being drawn up by marketing departments, not technical departments.
A recent survey of what happened during the October fires established the high percentage of service losses cited in the first paragraph. The “Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017” was released in April, the result of a major survey by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium, representing Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino county agencies.
The study found big gaps in cell phone outage reporting requirements between urban and rural service. “Local public safety officials must be notified ‘real time’ of these outages so that they can fulfill their public safety responsibilities.” Federal rules ask for “voluntary” reporting of outages, which hasn’t happened. The study calls for mandatory reporting. It also calls for California to create a Network Reliability Committee, specifically not run by industry insiders, to come up with solutions to creating reliable disaster communications.
Back in 2014, AT&T agreed that there was a service gap in the valley, in a proposal to build a 55-foot “stealth tree” tower up Nelligan Road. The application said the new tower would, “provide coverage for a significant gap … along Sonoma Highway from Arnold Drive to Adobe Canyon Road. Will also improve coverage to the residential and winery areas in Kenwood.”
A “significant gap” was defined as “a geographic area in which antenna signal is weak. ... The user may experience poor reception, inability to make calls and slow or intermittent data.” The application also noted that “AT&T has a technological necessity to provide improved wireless cell and data.”
The application was approved, but nothing has happened at the 300-acre Nelligan Road property.
Grape grower Jim Geib is frustrated with AT&T’s failure to connect with his vineyard frost alarm. “The AT&T rep said that nothing had changed and (my) cell phone must be bad. I filed the AT&T cell phone in the round file. Problem solved.” He is a Verizon customer today.