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LI's cellphone woes: Can you hear me now?

Ed Goldstein at his home in the community

Ed Goldstein at his home in the community of Oak Hills in Baiting Hollow. (April 6, 2012) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

When Ed Goldstein and his wife, Judy, took their annual two-month sojourn in Maui, Hawaii, in January, they were thrilled to be back in cellphone contact with friends and family. At home in Baiting Hollow, the retired couple is essentially incommunicado -- at least on the cell network.

"Most of the time we tell people to hang up and get us on our landline," Goldstein said about cellphone callers. "It's not the kind of reception you'd expect."

Cellphone providers say they have virtually all of Long Island covered and keep adding service. But in some outlying or tower-resistant communities, small groups of people are living largely in the wireless stone age, with homes in hilly, remote and thinly populated regions still beyond the reach of cell signals.

"I have to drive up a hill to get service," Lynn Jordan of Mount Sinai said. "Boy, is it frustrating."

And it's not only remote residences that experience problems.

Wayne Miller, president of Choice Medical Transport in Islandia, said his business has 55 Nextel cellphones to keep in contact with drivers. "We transport people everywhere on Long Island, and, yes, they [cellphones] are a problem and there are dead areas all over Long Island." He said he encounters dead spots in around 30 percent of the areas where his vehicles travel.

"I have a small, part-time business. Some days I wouldn't get any calls," said Art Frey, who lives near Timber Point Country Club in East Islip. His provider suggested he buy a small micro-tower, which uses his home Internet network for calls and data -- a one-time cost of $200. It solved the problem.


Seeking access

Cellphone providers and their contractors have erected cell towers in nearly all major towns and villages on the Island. They have fought court battles to enforce their rights to install transmitters when the public has resisted. And, while reluctant to say the job is finished, service providers point out that their major efforts now are centered on upgrading to the latest technology, 4G LTE, which greatly expands broadband data capabilities for mobile devices.

The companies say the overwhelming majority of customers are satisfied with their service. That includes Joe Maniscalco, a lawyer from Bellmore. "My cellphone on Long Island is awesome," he said.

Service maps of Long Island tell the story of the hears and hear-nots.

Verizon's, for instance, shows Long Island in a thick swath of red, indicating that digital cell service is ubiquitous. But focus in on some sections of the North and South shores and small blocks of white space show up -- indicating no service.

One such area is in Miller Place, but there are similar dead spots in St. James, Kings Park and, sure enough, the Timber Point area.

"My landlord has to go out on his deck to get service," Frey said.

Added Goldstein, "When we go away, it's great. Saratoga. Maui. Vegas is great. But Long Island still doesn't have complete coverage."


Upgrades needed

Industry analysts say Long Island, while spotty around the outer fringes, benefits from a proximity to a major metropolitan area, and a denser population than most other cell markets. Peter Xenakis, chief operating officer of Fuoco Technology, an IT services business in Hauppauge, said it's not just a matter of getting cell towers to outlying, tower-hostile regions.

Much of the work is now focused on upgrading and augmenting the existing voice network to new mobile data networks, which power smartphones with Internet and email capability.

"There's just not enough frequencies available for carriers to provide this bandwidth," Xenakis said. Around one-third of the businesses he deals with require a micro-tower so they can get mobile data inside their buildings. The devices rely on the wired data networks to transmit signals to and from the cellphone networks.

Jay Russo, president of Airwave Strategies of Lido Beach, which helps cell providers find locations for towers, including leases on private land, agreed that capacity is the bigger issue facing complete cellphone coverage.

"It's definitely incomplete," he said of the cellphone network on the Island. Where voice service is lacking, he said, "there's all sorts of neighborhoods that have traditionally blocked cell towers," mostly wealthier sections.


Challenges remain

Even where networks may have adequate voice coverage, the challenge will be keeping up on newer data networks. "Even if we were in a good spot, it's a moving target because people of all ages are now getting phones with email and Internet," he said. "The antennas have a certain amount of throughput [data capacity] and we're exceeding that."

The solution? "More sites," Russo said.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless say they are actively upgrading to the new 4G LTE network, even as they work to fill in no-signal zones.

"You build it out for coverage, then look at it for performance to make sure the network can handle the capacity," said Ellen Webner, a spokeswoman for AT&T. In the past two years, the company built 11 new cell sites amid the focus on upgrading. "It's a mature network," Webner said.

T-Mobile spokeswoman Danielle Hopcus said the company has invested $60 million in the network in just the past two years, adding 56 sites for a total 547 on Long Island. More than 90 percent are 4G for faster mobile data speeds.

Verizon Wireless, long a leading carrier, said the job of building its network remains a work in progress.

"There's always going to be little spots, in buildings or homes or geographic areas, that might need some tweaks," said David Samberg, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "We're always out there looking for ways to fill in those holes. The focus right now is building out the 4G LTE network."

He said it will be "pretty much everywhere" by next year's end. But what about filling the gaps in coverage?

"I don't think you would ever say that it's finished," Samberg said. "You are always looking for ways to expand it a little more, expand it and tweak it. Every place that has an issue, we are always looking for ways to fix it."

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