February 14, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 6

AT&T ups service for cell users

A structurally unsound cell phone tower is delaying plans to bring faster wireless communication service to Haines, but AT&T customers can expect to have 4G service in town by the end of the summer.

Currently, the fastest service available in town is 3G through Alaska Communications Systems.

Faster service was slated to be available much sooner, but a recent site visit revealed the tower will either require reinforcement or replacement to accommodate the upgrades required to provide 4G service, wireless consultant Justin Abbott said.

Abbott works for West Tower Communications, the company AT&T has contracted with for construction on the project. Equipment upgrades will catapult service for AT&T customers in Haines from about 2G, which is very slow, to 4G, the fastest mobile communications standard available.

“4G means that you’d be able to take your iPhone 4 and it would be able to upload and download faster than the Internet on your laptop at home. So that’s a pretty big change,” Abbott said.

AT&T customers in Haines aren’t currently getting full use of their phones because of a lack of a 4G network, Abbott explained. “They function poorly in that environment. They function better in a 3G environment, but then they function at full capacity at 4G,” he said.

Abbott said the upgrade is costly for the company, but AT&T has many customers in Alaska and doesn’t want to lose them to competitors, such as Verizon, trying to enter the market.

“It’s a big expense for any of the carriers to do it, but they have to because the customers demand it and the devices require it... Even if people don’t live in Haines – if they visit Haines for fishing or whatever – a lot of those people have an AT&T phone,” Abbott said.

AT&T obtained a land use permit from the Haines Borough on Dec. 27 to make the equipment upgrades, according to planning and zoning technician Tracy Cui. The land use permit allows for the installation of six antennae and the addition of equipment to the tower’s interior, Cui said.

A site visit conducted after the permit issuance revealed the tower, located in the Highland Subdivision, to be unfit for the upgrades. “Nobody had been out there to really verify what was really there... we got the zoning permit, but we didn’t realize the tower was deficient at that time. Everybody thought it was adequate,” Abbott said.

The company will analyze the tower within the next month to decide whether to renovate or replace it, but construction should begin and end by summer regardless of which option the company pursues, Abbott said.

“This is going to take a little while, unfortunately. If the tower was there and could support what we needed to do, we could stick it on there and bam, it would work instantly. But, unfortunately, it’s not that easy,” he said.

Alaska Communications Systems, another major cell phone carrier in Haines, currently provides 3G service.