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Communication Gaps: Cell phone reception is a challenge for some State College-area residents, and thus far solutions have been elusive

by on November 01, 2019 10:28 AM

If Bill Mahon can make a cell phone call from the Sahara Desert, he thinks he should be able to do the same thing from his home in Grays Woods. It’s difficult, though – he has to find the right spot in the house, or even go outside, so the person on the other end can hear him.

On the other side of State College, in Lemont, Dannielle and Scott Kroczynski have given a directive to their daughter, who lives in South Carolina: If she has something important to report back home, she should call her parents’ landline. There’s no guarantee they’ll get the call on their cell phones.

“We’ve come to rely on these technologies, and when they don’t work, you get frustrated,” Dannielle Kroczynski says.

The state of cell phone service in the State College area is a frustrating paradox for some local residents. The region is home to a world-class research university, one of the world’s largest stadiums, and one of the few pockets of growing population in this part of the state. Residents think the quality of their cell phone service from the major carriers, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, should match the area’s cachet.

Instead, some locals say they live with unreliable service, deal with dropped calls, and have to find their own solutions, all at a time when Americans increasingly are relying on these devices.

According to the Pew Research Center, 96 percent of Americans own one, and 81 percent have a smartphone. And a survey last year from the National Center for Health Statistics found a majority of American households – 54.9 percent – relied solely on cell phones. 

The average consumer spent $1,118 in 2017 on their cell phone service, about $94 a month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s almost double the cost in 2007, when the average consumer spent $608.

“You spend $1,000 for these phones – you expect them to work,” says Mahon, who lives in the Graysdale neighborhood of Grays Woods in Patton Township. “It drives me and my family nuts.” 

Mahon’s is one of the households that rely solely on a cell phone, as he and his wife ditched their landline years ago. He rattled off a list of issues they’ve experienced with undependable service at their home.

“I’m always losing phone calls with my wife when she’s calling from campus,” he says, referring to Penn State. “I’ll go from the kitchen to the office and go upstairs and try different bedrooms” to try to reconnect. “There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason.”

Mahon says guests resort to standing on the sidewalk in front of the house to make a call. And there was a time that one of his son’s friends, while hanging out with his son, wasn’t getting his mother’s calls. She panicked, thinking something was wrong, but Mahon says that comes with the territory of where he lives.

Mahon laughs recalling when he and his wife went to Morocco two years ago and had no problem making a call from the Sahara Desert. They’d taken an excursion into the desert to watch the sunset from atop a sand dune, and they called their kids back in State College to share the moment.

“Try to do the same thing in State College, and it’s going to be iffy whether it’s going to work or not,” Mahon says. 

Another Grays Woods resident, Randy Schmidt, can relate.

Like Mahon, Schmidt has to maneuver around his house to get a signal. He and his wife bought their home in the Brynwood development in 2007, hoping their service would improve as the neighborhood was built out.

“Twelve years sounds like a long time to go without improvement,” he says. “When we first moved in, we understood – it’s a new development. It’s been the same the whole time.”

Frustrations with dropped calls led them to buy a network extender from Verizon Wireless. The extender turns the cell phone into a VoIP device, or voice over internet protocol, for outgoing calls using their internet connection. But it’s no help for incoming calls.

“We basically don’t count on getting calls,” he says. “People would say, ‘You didn’t answer,’ and there’d be a voicemail.

“We missed a lot of incoming calls and texts over the years. Sometimes it’s a day later, for texts.”

There was one time that his sister and brother-in-law were planning to visit for a Penn State football game on a Saturday. Their plans changed, but a text message to let the Schmidts know didn’t come until Sunday.

“I guess they could have emailed us,” Schmidt says.

In search of solutions

The solutions for improving service in Grays Woods prove vexing. 

This community of about 330 homes already lacks sufficient cell service, and the master plan for this community envisions another 1,100-plus residences comprising single-family homes, townhouses, and apartments.

In 2017, Verizon Wireless wanted to install a tower on a property on Scotia Range Road that would fill a “significant service gap” in this area, according to legal documents filed in a proceeding with Patton Township. However, the entire Grays Woods community is zoned for residential development, and telecommunications facilities like cell phone towers are prohibited.

Verizon Wireless asked the township for a variance, a legal term that would allow them an exemption from the zoning restriction to proceed with installing the tower.

The township’s zoning hearing board denied Verizon Wireless’s request, ruling the telecom company had not exhausted all the options to place a tower in the area that would not need a zoning variance. For instance, the board cited a nearby church, a medical facility, or water tower.

Doug Erickson, the Patton Township manager, says Verizon Wireless could ask the township to modify the zoning to accommodate a tower. 

“We want to help facilitate that, but we want to protect our residential neighborhoods,” Erickson says. “That’s the balancing test we would do if somebody came in.

“If they were to come in and ask us – say, ‘Hey, we really need to improve the service out there,’ we would sit down and figure out a way we could do it the least intrusively.”

David Weissman, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, acknowledged the denial: “Without local zoning approval, we cannot deploy in these areas to improve service to our customers and their constituents.”

However, Weissman did not respond to a question about whether the company would consider asking Patton Township for a zoning change.

Additionally, the legal documents from that matter say that at the time, in 2017, Grays Woods was being served by three towers that were operating at 50-percent capacity. Verizon Wireless projected the three towers would exceed 100-percent capacity in 2018 because of the proliferation of unlimited data plans.

Erickson says there are two towers in the township – one behind Walmart, another on Hawbaker Industrial Drive – and one close to the township line, in Huston Township near Skytop.

Another part of the State College area where some residents lament their cell service is Lemont, in College Township.

Dannielle and Scott Kroczynski have no choice but to maintain a landline, at $65 a month, because their cell phones can’t get a signal inside their house. They live off Branch Road, about a mile from the traffic light in the center of the town.

Dropped or missed calls and delayed text messages were a familiar fate for their phones.

“It’s like these things go up into the netherworld, and there’s a pocket of no communication,” she says. 

Another Lemont resident, Cindy Moyer, gets fine service at home, off First Avenue on the outskirts of the town. But she does not have to travel far from home before she feels as though she is in a dead zone.

Moyer says she used to call her mother on her morning commute to Penn State. But during her 12-minute drive, the call might drop four times as she makes her way out of Lemont to East College Avenue.

“She’ll say you’re starting to break up. I’ll say, ‘Guess where I am,’” Moyer says.

Improvements to service in the Lemont area have been elusive, too.

In 2011, Verizon Wireless and AT&T proposed a cell tower on the property of Mount Nittany United Methodist Church, at East Branch Road and Villandry Boulevard. The church’s membership voted against allowing the tower on-site, following community opposition. 

About two years ago, College Township’s zoning hearing board approved the placement of a communications facility on a power transmission line along Cortland Drive, in Lemont’s Nittany Orchard neighborhood. 

There was community opposition, but the board approved the application. However, Verizon Wireless did not act on the plan and the application expired, says Mark Gabrovsek, a zoning officer for the township. He adds that the township’s current ordinance now prohibits what was proposed if Verizon Wireless were to resubmit its application. 

In another development, earlier this year, the township approved an application for a cell facility to be installed on the property of Meyer Dairy on South Atherton Street, Gabrovsek says. It’s unclear how it will affect service in Lemont.

Both Erickson and Gabrovsek say it’s not their townships’ place to lobby the cell phone companies to improve the service within their borders. Instead, the township governments will consider the companies’ proposals to put up towers or other structures within the limits of their zoning.

Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe says the county’s role is limited. The county installed new radio-tower sites for a 911 communications system overhaul a few years ago, and Pipe says the county rents space on the towers to the communications companies. The one closest to the Centre Region is in Ferguson Township, near the Huntingdon County line.

“We had companies reaching out to say they’d love to have space,” Pipe says.

While Grays Woods and Lemont are two of the most notable dead-zone areas for locals, some residents in other parts of this area are just as frustrated.

For instance, Jackie Rosenfeld has to drive to Pine Grove Mills before she has service through Consumer Cellular, a no-contract provider that is available through membership in AARP. She lives in Pennsylvania Furnace, Huntingdon County.

“I have my cellphone when I’m on the road, and my landline when I’m home,” she says.

Jay Searles and his wife, Jodi Vender, struggle with their service in the Greentree neighborhood of State College. They don’t have a landline.

Searles, who teaches online, needs to be able to call his online students who live all over the world, and he can’t put up with service that goes in and out.

“You’d be talking to somebody else and they’d disappear. Walk a few feet and they’re there are again,” Searles says.

But walk a block or two away from his house, and the signal “improves drastically,” he says. 

Their solution to their cell phone woes is Wi-Fi calling using their cable internet service.

And that’s how Phil and Heather Torbert get around the dead zone in Park Forest, where their home is. When they moved there in 2005, their service through AT&T was great. It’s since degraded significantly to the point they, too, have figured out where in the house gets the best reception.

“To stay on the phone, we would have to stand in the front 6-8 feet of our kitchen or be upstairs in the front bedroom,” Phil Torbert says. 

These local residents say their lousy cell phone service isn’t life or death or anything that has exacerbated emergencies. But the inconvenience and confusion that it brings seems to be unavoidable and a throwback to an era when cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now.

“It’s the little nuisances that add up to lost minutes, hours that add up over the week,” Torbert says. “Which seems like something we shouldn’t have to worry about in 2019.”


Mike Dawson is a freelance writer in State College.


Mike Dawson is a freelance writer in State College.
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