August 15, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 32

Snafu, ship visit kill cell service

Cell phone service came to a virtual standstill in Haines Wednesday when statewide problems affecting provider ACS coincided with an ongoing gridlock in service for AT&T Alascom customers on days large cruise ships dock.

“It’s getting to be a real problem,” said Krista Kielsmeier, who greets cruise ship visitors for the borough’s tourism department.

The town’s lone taxi company gave up trying to use its phone Wednesday and instead posted a pick-up schedule at the cruise ship dock. Tour operator Karen Hess borrowed Kielsmeier’s phone, which links to a provider in the Lower 48.

Complaints about spotty cell service predate Wednesday’s problems.

Haines resident Judy Erekson noticed that her Internet and her cell phone service have been spotty on cruise ship days. The phone dropped calls, wouldn’t reach her voicemail and gave a busy signal when she tried calling people.

After reporting her concerns to borough Mayor Stephanie Scott, Erekson tried to call 911 at 6:04 p.m. on Aug.7, only to receive a busy signal. Then she called back and got through.

Erekson also said her daughter tried calling her on a ship day from a store’s landline, because her cell phone service was not working.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had problems on ship day,” Erekson said.

Like Erekson, Judy Heinmiller has a cell phone that uses the 314 prefix and said she had trouble on cruise ship day, including being cut off during a conference call. “It goes through second try, it seems.”

“Cell phone service really sucks in the morning and then again about four o’clock,” said Heinmiller.

Andrew Colley, AT&T Alascom’s personnel representative in Anchorage, said problems with his company’s service may be linked to the presence of the cruise ship. “AT&T’s network in the area is optimized for the population which resides in Haines. Cruise ship stops in Haines are infrequent but may result in network congestion when they occur.”

Colley said the firm would be offering “HSPA+” service in Haines but said he could not offer a firm launch date at this time.

Calls to 911 should not have been affected, Colley said. On Tuesday, acting police chief Simon Ford said department staff have tested the 911 connection by calling the number with their cell phones and encountered no difficulty.

Police officer Adam Patterson said his cell phone, too, has been having difficulties. Dispatcher Celeste Grimes recommended contacting the service provider so that “there’s as much documentation as possible” about the problem.

ACS reported it experienced a statewide outage that resulted in a complete loss of service Wednesday. It lasted an estimated six hours.

Tour operator Hess said that Skagway also seems to have difficulties on Wednesdays, when four ships dock. Cell phone to cell phone calls don’t work at all, she said, but sometimes calls originating from a landline do, she said.

Bart Henderson, owner of Chilkat Guides, has also noticed the spotty service. Henderson said glitches originate with AT&T’s 2G network. While the company has said it would upgrade to 3G or 4G, it has not done so.

The problem, Henderson said, arises from the modern cell phones, which run on 3G or 4G, being forced to use AT&T and ACS’s 2G and 3G networks.

“If they would just fulfill their promise and upgrade their tower to 3G it would be much higher capacity,” Henderson said. “I’m still with AT&T but it just never happens.”

A minor property dispute on the former land of Jack Smith that holds the AT&T tower may have delayed the process, said Smith, but was resolved.

“They were planning on putting a 4G tower up, last I heard,” Smith said.

Patty Campbell of Radio Shack said that she has a 314 number and it “doesn’t get spotty service,” even on a ship day. She said she has no idea why this might be happening.

According to Mayor Stephanie Scott, cell service seems to depend on a variety of variables, including time of day, service provider, and how many cell phone users are on the cruise ship.

“I don’t exactly know what kind of solution will be forthcoming,” Scott said. “I would just say use your landline in an emergency on cruise ship day.”