Just last week, Linda Styler had it happen again.
The longtime Condon resident was working a quiet shift at the Mission Mountain Mercantile on Montana Highway 83 when someone rushed inside needing a telephone.
The emergency was less dramatic than previous ones. Instead of a car accident or a collision involving a deer, someone’s truck had gotten stuck up a logging road near Lion Creek close to Swan Lake. Because cell phone service is almost impossible to come by in the area, the man had to walk back to the highway and hitch a ride to the closest landline. That’s often the mercantile’s telephone.
“We’ve had people who hit a deer and had to send out a person to call 911 for them. Or they’ve run off the road into the ditch and had to ask people to go call or get help for them,” Styler said. “Many times they’ve just had to walk.”
Having worked at the mercantile the last eight years, Styler estimates about 10 people a month have something happen on the drive between Seeley Lake and Bigfork that requires an emergency phone call, whether it’s a flat tire, an overheating radiator or a crash.
“There’s plenty of people here who would really like to have cell phone service just for the reason of safety’s sake,” Styler said. “From here to Seeley, if you’re in a tough spot, you’re just in trouble.”
Many believe in this day and age help is always the touch of a button away, but that’s not the case along almost the entire stretch of Highway 83. Some sections have spotty cell service while the majority has nothing.
In recent years, mobile providers have been involved in a strategic power play to provide the best cell service in Montana. Last year Verizon invested $34 million in network infrastructure across Montana, adding new sites and upgrading old ones. The company has plans to fully upgrade the state’s 3G capabilities by 2013.
At the same time, AT&T has invested $70 million overall since 2009, a company official said. Recently the company announced the addition of 10 new cell sites across Montana, including four in the northwest. One of those new towers is near Condon and has provided mobile broadband voice and data coverage along a section of Highway 83. But reportedly only AT&T customers can access the service.
Fewer regions across the country are without cell service as providers like Verizon and AT&T continue expanding networks to meet the skyrocketing demand. But looking at a nationwide map depicting coverage areas, there are noticeable shades of gray in Montana where cell service is nowhere to be found.
Part of that has to do with geography, according to a spokesperson with Verizon.
“Montana is a great state but it’s a very challenging state for coverage,” Verizon’s Bob Kelley said. “With the topography and terrain and vast expanses of rural areas, that makes it challenging.”
And then there’s the cost versus benefit analysis. Both Kelley and an AT&T official described similar approaches to deciding when and how much to invest in cellular infrastructure.
“It takes a large investment to reach out to rural areas and expand coverage to areas that have smaller populations,” Kelley said. “That said, we’re very proud of the fact that in 2011 we invested $34 million in the state.”
Jason Olson, director of external affairs for AT&T, which bought Alltel within the state a couple years ago and has substantially increased its service statewide, said the company tries to find new sites that will be the most far-reaching and efficient for delivering strong signals.
“You look at where there are gaps in coverage and you prioritize and try to spend in the right way,” he said.
In the last decade, mobile phones have surpassed landlines as the most common form of telecommunication.
From 1990 to 2000, the number of cell phone subscribers in the U.S. grew from 5.2 million to 100 million, according to an industry survey published in the Federal Communication Commission’s 2009 wireless industry report. By 2009, there were almost 286 million subscribers. In Montana, there were roughly 802,000 subscriptions signed up to use cell phones in 2009.
“It’s an interesting fact that we’ve become so dependent on cell coverage, where 10-15 years ago it just wasn’t there,” Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said. “Now if we don’t have it we kind of freak out.”
Officers not only carry cell phones with them, they also have computers inside their patrol vehicles that send and receive cellular data. Most of the populated areas within Flathead County have decent service, but there are also a number of spots without it, Curry said.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a huge problem for us,” he said of the county’s cell service.
The fact still remains “as an agency we are very dependent on cell phone service,” Curry said.
But not everyone is eager to throw up cell towers everywhere. In Glacier National Park cell phone service is almost completely absent, and a lot of people are happy to keep it that way.
“I think a lot of people come to get away from that,” park spokesperson Denise Germann said. “Who wants that noise going off when you can enjoy the scenery and outdoor environment?”
Styler said several residents living in the Swan enjoy being off the grid, so to speak. She acknowledges that people with phones hanging from their ears drive her crazy most of the time. But during emergencies, having a cell phone signal is essential.
“There are times when you really need one,” she said.
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