Dead zones and dropped calls are two occurrences familiar to many Madison cellular phone users.
“I cannot receive calls on my phone,” said UW senior Chris Roepe. “It also takes several minutes of trying over and over to dial out.”
Roepe subscribes to SprintPCS wireless phone service. “You can ask any student that uses SprintPCS, and they will all tell you the same story,” he said.
Many UW-Madison students have problems with their SprintPCS phones, including junior Carly Zepnick.
“It’s pointless to have a cellular phone if you can’t even use it,” she said.
Most students find they cannot use their phones between the hours of 8-11 p.m.
“During the day there is no blockage or overusage,” said Pat Kranz, a SprintPCS employee. “It’s only during the off-peak minutes that there are problems.”
The primary problem behind the spotty service is a lack of sufficient equipment provided by SprintPCS, specifically cellular towers and the number of cells on the towers. Daniel Danbeck, program director for telecommunications for the UW Department of Engineering, said he believes there are two main reasons why the number of towers is limited.
Cost is a major factor,” Danbeck said. “There is always a balance of service and costs. Secondly, public opposition within local municipalities can slow the construction of a cellular tower. Some people are concerned about property values and issues of health.”
Yet federal legislation in recent years has made it increasingly difficult for local opposition to be successful in impeding the construction of towers. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits health concerns from being a legitimate reason in rejecting a cellular tower.
“The [Federal Communications Commission] has made a decision that the emissions from the towers are not harmful,” Danbeck said.
Genie Sieling, director of planning and development for Dane County, said towns have little jurisdiction over tower placement.
“The placement of towers needs to follow local zoning regulations, but individual communities cannot turn down a location for no specific reason at all,” Sieling said.
However, SprintPCS does plan to add a new tower in Madison.
“SprintPCS is aggressively increasing capacity and creating a new cell site near campus,” Kranz said.
Kranz said both of these improvements should be in place by late November or early December.
New techniques have been implemented in aesthetically improving the cellular towers, including placing them in trees or in church steeples. Some towers are even disguised as lamp posts in parking lots. Many towers are placed on building tops.
While there has been noticeable resistance to construction of cellular towers because of cost and public concern of health issues, the need for an additional tower is evident.
“Cellular equipment is expensive, and it is up to them as to where and how many towers should be placed; so as far as the cellular providers are concerned, it is a balancing act with numbers,” Danbeck said.
Buildings also create obstacles to cellular signals. Glen Loyd, public information officer with Consumer Protection, said problems with poor phone service are certainly not new.
“We get a lot of complaints about phone companies,” he said.
Loyd said he believes the best protection against faulty service is for people to investigate particular services and find out where those dead areas are when considering the purchase of a cellular phone.
“People have got to understand that there are places where you will not get reception,” he said. “We tell consumers to look out for dead zones. It’s a general problem that there are dead spots. It’s a problem that we warn customers about.”
Despite widespread frustration with SprintPCS, Danbeck remains optimistic that better service will emerge.
“If cell phone use increases as popular demand grows, service will improve,” he said. “The companies will eliminate more holes. There will always be dead spots.”
SprintPCS customers are encouraged to dial *2 on their phones to be credited for a lost call.
Mark McHale, regional communications director for SprintPCS, promised to officially release a statement to UW SprintPCS customers, answering their main questions and complaints.