Reduced cellular service at Snowshoe
AT&T cellular service has been temporarily scaled back on Snowshoe Mountain. According to Mike Holstine, business manager at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the service provider began a revision of all of its cellular distribution towers about three years ago. When AT&T got to the tower at Snowshoe, they realized it had never gone through a federal approval process.
“When it was time to renew their licenses, it was like 'uh-oh, we have a tower here that never got FCC approval,'” Holstine said. “They contacted us and wanted to know if we had any documentation on it. We looked through it and said 'no, we don't have any.' Kind of a uh-oh moment for them, and one for us, too. It's like, 'oh, maybe that's where we're getting these signals from.'”
“It was a source of interference,” Holstine said. “But the real problem was it was unlicensed as far as the FCC was concerned.”
Holstine said the NRAO started working with AT&T a few years back to try to get something built and installed that met all the federal requirements.
“We worked with them for a couple years until early last summer,” Holstine explained. “We worked on a specific system. It's a system that we think will work real well for Snowshoe. We granted AT&T an extension on the operation of that existing tower for another year so they could get their system designed and put in. That was last year.”
Holstine said the NRAO contacted AT&T every couple of months throughout the year for an update, but the mid-August deadline for the extension came and went.
“I sent them a letter in September saying please shut down the sector that's pointed towards the GBT [Green Bank Telescope]. Of course, once I sent that letter off, it really got their attention. At AT&T, I heard it went to the vice president's level. Now, they're really working hard on it,” joked Holstine. “AT&T is an aircraft carrier that doesn't turn in the water very quickly, but they're a good company, and they've been fairly easy to work with. Our goal is to try to help them get something that works. ”
Holstine said he's starting to see some progress on the project.
“I've spoken to them on the phone and by e-mail,” he said. “They have given me some milestones that they're wanting to hit as far as design and installation and operation. They're hoping to have it done this winter.”
Holstine said the affected area would be on the mountain around Snowshoe Village. He said the last thing the NRAO wants to do is hurt business at Snowshoe, but they have to follow the regulation required by the FCC.
“One of the things I've been working on the last couple of days, internally here, is figuring out what we could do so Snowshoe can still have service and minimally affect us, while AT&T gets their gears turning,” he said.
Holstine said the service area around Snowshoe is sectioned into three different areas.
“There's a sector that points towards the telescope, then there's a sector that points down towards Linwood, then a sector that catches 219,” explained Holstine. “The only one we were concerned about was the one coming back towards the GBT. The other two sectors should be in full operation, no problem. It was just the sector pointing our way that caused the interference.”
Holstine said it's not just the tower causing the interference. Each cell phone on the mountain has an impact.
“You've also got a hundred, two hundred, even a thousand handsets that are traveling around the top of the mountain,” he said. “And all of those cellphones are operating at the same frequencies — they're all transmitters, as well.”
Snowshoe chief operations officer Frank DeBerry said the reduction in service puts the resort at a disadvantage, but AT&T is working with them to find a solution.
“We're kind of stuck in the middle here between what AT&T can do and what the NRAO needs,” said DeBerry. “Lack of cell service, lack of wi-fi is the number one roadblock we have to guest satisfaction, so for this to get worse is something that we consider to be a pretty big deal.”
Holstine talked about the new system AT&T is working to implement.
“It's a new system,” he said. “It's something we've advocated for a long time, and AT&T is the first one that's really done this. It's called a distributed access system.”
Holstine said the easiest, cheapest approach for any cellular provider is to just stick a tower up on the tallest mountain and blanket everything.
“Quit doing the big antenna,” recommended Holstine. “Put in smaller systems that are directional, that are aimed. The Internet cafe concept, where you cover just what you need to cover instead of blowing it out to the woods or to where there is no one.”
Holstine said that concept has started appearing in college towns and campuses across the country.
“These little systems, the towers can overlap, so they can get coverage over many miles but use much less costly equipment that serves just what they need to serve. That's exactly the solution that Snowshoe needs.”
This doesn't necessarily mean other carriers will start providing service in Pocahontas County.
“We've worked with a couple other carriers that have wanted to do tests in that area, but no one that I know of has dedicated anything other than AT&T,” Holstine said.
According to Holstine, when it's all said and done, reception up top will be better than ever.
“This design is going to be finished probably within a month,” Holstine said. “When it's finished, Snowshoe will probably have the best coverage they've ever had. It'll really be great. It's just a win-win for everybody.”