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Would Better Maps Mean Better Cell Service?

cell tower against a sunset
photo by Carl Lender

Do you live, work or commute in a cell service “dead zone,” at risk of being cut off from emergency services - or Candy Crush Saga?

New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer is applying his nearly 35 years of Congressional experience to address your problem. Not with better cell service, but with better maps.

Schumer did not get to be Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s replacement-in-waiting by taking bold stands on controversial issues. He certainly did not get to spend 35 years working under the Capitol Dome by telling his constituents to put their community’s interests ahead of blatant NIMBY-ism. Schumer’s hallmark is to take the shortest and politically safest route to the nearest video screen. When he goes on the attack, it is against targets that won’t shoot back at a senior sitting senator - like mobile phone companies.

So Schumer has started a crusade against cell coverage maps that appear to show high-speed and ample cell coverage in regions that, on the ground, often have holes with little or no signal. I, like many of my co-workers, can personally attest that there are many such holes in New York state north of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Schumer launched his campaign with a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, asking regulators to crack down on cell service providers who offers maps that show full coverage in areas that are actually full of gaps, such as northern Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties. In a speech outlining his plan, Schumer placed the blame for patchy service squarely on wireless carriers. “There are more cell phone dead zones in Dutchess County than post-winter potholes on the West Side Highway - and misrepresenting coverage maps to give the impression a wireless carrier provides coverage in an area where it does not is false advertising, pure and simple,” he said.

In addition to asking the FCC to punish wireless carriers directly, Schumer wants constituents to report dead zones on his website. The senator will then pass the information to the FCC, presumably to enhance the scrutiny of wireless carriers’ mapmaking skills.

Cell service dead zones are a real problem. Sometimes that problem is simply that customers buy a service plan thinking they will receive good coverage only to find their phones perpetually stuck at one or two bars, if that. Merchants who rely on wireless technology to conduct business face everything from dropped calls to botched transactions. And, more seriously, there is always the worst case scenario in which people who need emergency services are unable to contact help because their phones cannot get a signal.

Yet despite Schumer’s bombast, dead zones are mainly not the fault of deceitful or greedy cell companies. They exist because of the depressingly frequent community opposition to cell towers that would fill them in. The objections tend to center on aesthetics; towers, even when disguised, are often described as “eyesores.” Objectors also cite potentially lowered property values and even, in some cases, health concerns whose scientific bona fides are debatable, to put it mildly.

Of course, New York is not the only place where communities fight to keep cell towers away. And in some sparsely populated areas of the country, such as the Southwest, carriers find erecting towers simply too expensive for the handful of customers they might gain. But in the Hudson Valley, population density is not a problem, and companies would be eager to build more infrastructure if they did not keep running into roadblocks put in place by the people who live there.

Sometimes opposition to constructing cell towers is reasonable and leads to workable alternative solutions, such as co-locating the facilities on water towers or other existing structures. Yet a lot of the time, opposition simply delays the deployment and increases the cost of the installations that would improve cell service. In New York, the results are obvious to anyone who drives north from the Bronx toward Albany on the east side of the Hudson River.

Federal law already requires communities to accommodate cellular facilities, but it does not completely pre-empt local zoning and similar land use regulation. Total pre-emption would be a heavy-handed solution to the problem, but it would at least help get those coverage gaps filled. There is no reason to believe that emailing the FCC a list of user-submitted dead zones will do the same.

Maybe Schumer favors decisive action like pre-emption of local zoning regulation. Maybe he opposes it. We are not likely to find out, because taking a clear position on a controversial topic is not the Schumer way. Better to just beat up the cell companies for some cheap publicity.

If you are unhappy with his approach to closing the coverage gaps, you can always call the senator. Assuming you can get a signal, that is.

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