County’s connect-inactivity

It’s no secret that the scenic nature of Rappahannock County is one of its defining characteristics, not to mention its biggest draw. It’s why hundreds of tourists drive through to watch the leaves change and visit its shops, farms, wineries, restaurants, bordering parks and other attractions. It’s charming and it’s quaint.

And sometimes it’s downright impossible to place a phone call.

The first cell “towers” erected in Rappahannock County were actually three silo structures at Huntly, Massies Corner and the Welch farm on U.S. 522. According to County Administrator John McCarthy, the towers were initially opposed by many here, and Sprint only received permission to begin construction after a long series of planning commission and board of supervisors’ public hearings ended in early 2001.

As cell phone usage increased in prevalence, sentiments swayed and the towers increased in numbers. Soon Sprint had several “stealth” towers (towers that were set into trees and only slightly above the tree lines), each between 60 and 90 feet high, installed along at Ben Venue and Nicholson Slope. A 150-feet high monopole was set up behind the Amissville fire hall.

The response to the new towers was generally positive, but it was not until almost 10 years later that another major cell carrier came calling. AT&T requested permission from the county to not only extend several of Sprint’s existing towers but to erect three new ones – in Boston, in Sperryville and behind Rappahannock County High School (RCHS). After further public hearings, the county eventually approved the necessary permits.

Many worried during those hearings that the towers would be unsightly; in reality, those new towers are nowhere in sight. AT&T’s extension to the Ben Venue tower was completed six months ago, and is up and running; meanwhile, the 20-foot extension to the Amissville tower was completed about a month ago but is still awaiting the installation of the AT&T antenna cluster. Construction of the three new towers has not begun.

While AT&T and its contractors have kept quiet about construction plans, McCarthy believes the delays can be blamed in part on the failed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, blocked last December by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which decided it would restrict competition. As a result, AT&T had to pay $4 billion to T-Mobile USA parent company Deutsche Telekom. McCarthy thinks most of that came out of the company’s capital projects fund, which is used to finance, among other things, construction of new cell towers.

Combine that recent loss with the cost of creating a new tower in an area like Rappahannock – no official figures for the new towers have been given, but Sprint’s silo structures cost about $1 million apiece – and the relatively small residential user base in this rural area, and there’s simply no telling how long those towers may take to materialize.

“There are about 4,000 people in this county,” said McCarthy. “Even if every person here had a cell phone – which they don’t – I don’t think AT&T would make enough money to recoup the cost of one tower, let alone three.”

This catch-22 seriously affected county residents Franklin and Esther Schmidt, owners of F&E Schmidt Photography. A lightning strike during a Sept. 28 storm caused an outage of Verizon phone service at their home-based business near Slate Mills. As it is for most county residents, landline service is the only service available to the Schmidts – and it was down.

“We called our Verizon voice messaging back-up system to check our messages and kept getting a pre-recorded message saying we were not receiving calls,” said Schmidt in a phone interview, itself a victim of spotty cell phone coverage. “We called Verizon immediately and told them that message simply had to go, that it was damaging our business.”

Schmidt said Verizon originally told him their phones could be down for as long as a week, which Schmidt claimed was unacceptable. After some negotiations, repeated transfers to what Schmidt said was a Verizon supervisor in Asia – and the help of family friends who called Verizon on behalf of the Schmidts – their phones were back up Monday morning (Oct. 1), but their service was still spotty at best.

“It would be working fine one minute and die the next,” said Schmidt. “On Monday it was fixed, on Tuesday it was down again, and on and on throughout the week.”

According to Harry J. Mitchell, Verizon’s public relations director in the region, service was fully restored to the area on Oct. 4. The Schmidts will receive a $15 credit on their next phone bill, though Schmidt stressed that “there’s simply no way of knowing the damage this caused.”

“While the equipment was out of service, callers trying to reach [Verizon] customers who have voice mail would have received a message like [the one the Schmidts cited],” Mitchell said, adding: “We regret the inconvenience this service issue caused our customers.”

In addition to an unknown number of potential customers who looked elsewhere after being unable to reach the Schmidts, the lack of any phone service whatsoever poses a major safety issue, something stressed by McCarthy – and something many of the county’s fire, rescue and public safety personnel spoke up about at last year’s cell tower hearings.

“There are a lot of older people in this county,” McCarthy said. “And if they can’t call out at all, even for help, that obviously poses a huge problem.”

This is further compounded by the fact that landlines – including the aging copper wire-based infrastructure common to rural areas such as Rappahannock – are no longer a priority for providers. The materials are expensive. Cell phone infrastructure and equipment are less costly and more convenient. It’s possible that landlines will be irrevocably obsolete soon, and cell phones will be the only type of coverage provided.

Just as soon as those towers are built.