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West County still ‘on hold’ for cell coverage

Among its historic artifacts, Rowe has two that may someday cause younger generations to scratch their heads in wonder: The first is a red phone booth outside Town Hall. The second is a pay phone installed on the Town Hall exterior.

The picturesque phone booth is empty because the phone company took away that unprofitable “land-line” years ago. But the pay phone — installed by the town as a public service — is useful in a place where easy access to cell phone service is still a dream.

It’s been 20 years since digital mobile phones have been commercially available, but in the Berkshire hilltowns of Rowe, Charlemont, Hawley, Heath, Ashfield, Buckland and Shelburne, travelers still hunt for high-altitude spots where cell phones might work.

Since the late 1990s, several proposals have been made for cell towers then withdrawn by the applicants after many residents raised concerns about the height and appearance of the cell tower.

But now that cell phones have also become “smartphones” — hand-held computers that can access data — will feelings about the tall towers change? Or will “last mile” broadband fill the coverage gap?

The largest mobile phone service providers have coverage maps to show where cell phone access is strong or weak.

AT&T phone users can go to the following website:

www.att.com/coverageviewer

and enter an address or a ZIP code, and a “domestic wireless voice coverage” map will give you an idea of whether a town has any AT&T coverage. The darkest orange-shaded parts of the map indicate “best” coverage, meaning that cell phone coverage is good inside buildings and vehicles. Progressively lighter shades indicate increasingly poorer cell service.

A similar map serves Verizon customers at this site:

www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/splash/coverage_map.jsp

Here you can type in an address or ZIP code and see the results.

On the AT&T map, for instance, Ashfield has almost no cell phone coverage until the areas closer to Route 9 and to Cummington. Nor does most of Hawley, Monroe, Rowe, Heath or Colrain. The “Shelburne Falls” stretch of Buckland and Shelburne has cell phone coverage, but the rural parts of town do not.

The Clesson Brook Road section of Buckland, with at least 50 households, doesn’t have cell-phone service; nor does the Fire Station on Hog Hollow Road, says Glenn Cardinal of the Buckland Technology and Cable Committee.

“There are some serious gaps, when you think about medical alerts and life-alert systems that depend on cell towers,” he said. “My mother, 86, has a cell phone with her. That’s her life line. But she lives in an area where they have good coverage.”

“The terrain here really impedes service. The bottom line is, you have to put it in a lot of towns to fill in the gaps. Because of the low-density population, that’s expensive,” Cardinal said.

Cardinal added that some cell service providers are reconfiguring their sites and hooking up with the “middle-mile” broadband recently completed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, so that people with smart phones can get data.

Cardinal said some who oppose the building of cell towers near their homes have questioned possible health risks, “but what about the health benefit of instant 911 calls. People don’t think about that. They really need to. They just don’t want to look at an ugly tower, but in my opinion, the basic opposition is that ‘It doesn’t look good.’”

Roseann Martoccia, executive director of the Franklin County Home Care Corp., said elders do carry cell phones with them as a backup safety measure when they’re at home alone or when they go out. “Having a lack of cell phone coverage is a safety issue for them — as well as for elders who have workers come to their homes.” She said that home-care workers haven’t always been able to call an elder from the road, to tell them the worker has car trouble or will be late.

In Hawley, according to Fire Chief Gregory Cox, most people have cell phones but only use them when they leave town.

In March, a new 197-foot cell tower was approved in Hawley, to be built on land owned by Berkshire East.

“When the tower is (complete), we will have better cell coverage for East Hawley,” said Cox, “but it’s not clear how it will affect East Hawley center, which is 200 feet higher than Berkshire East, or West Hawley. “Right now, virtually all of West Hawley is (unserved),” he said.

This town of 330 people took a major hit during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, when phone lines and the phone cable along Route 8A were severed. Cox said it was about four weeks before landline telephone service could be restored.

“911 doesn’t work if you can’t call on the phone,” he remarked. Living in East Hawley, Cox says his cell phone gets “two bars” of service from home, but if he walks to a woods uphill, his phone gets three bars of service.

“We don’t have cell service at the Fire Station,” he said.

Besides the cell tower at Berkshire East, Colrain approved in June a 120-foot cell tower to be built for AT&T on town-owned land at the transfer station. This will be the first cell tower in that town and residents hope it will mean more cell phone coverage.

A 150-foot cell tower has been proposed for Spruce Corner Road in Ashfield, and the special permit process for that tower is ongoing.

When asked if Verizon Wireless plans to expand service to western Franklin County towns, Verizon Wireless spokesman Michael Murphy pointed out that Verizon has improved data coverage in Greenfield and other parts of Franklin County since 2012.

“Given the high competitive nature of our industry, we typically do not speculate on future expansion plans,” he said. “We don’t want to tip our hand to competitors, but it’s fair to say that we are always seeking opportunities to enhance coverage to stay ahead of changes in customer demand.”

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