Can you hear me now? Hilton Head tries to balance cell-phone service with love of trees, not towers

August 8, 2010 

As a world-renowned resort destination with first-class beaches, golf courses and more, Hilton Head Island has plenty of attributes attractive to prospective visitors.

Cell phone service apparently is not one of them.

Ken Nason, director of sales and marketing for The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, hoped to avoid a dropped call long enough to discuss the island's reputedly poor coverage while driving home on a recent afternoon.

"Cell phone service on our island is a very challenging thing to sell," Nason said.

Seconds later, his voice grew scratchy.

"I'm hitting one of those dead zones," he said.

Although quality of service is difficult to quantify, carriers say they have improved service over the years and continue to upgrade their networks.

Even so, Nason is among a chorus of people living, working and playing on Hilton Head who say it remains a difficult place to make a cell phone call.

Among guests at Nason's hotel, cell phone service is one of the most frequent sources of dissatisfaction.

It's also a factor business groups consider when choosing where to conduct a meeting.

One group told Nason it did not pick the Westin because its members feared they would not be able to do business on the island. Several more groups have told him they won't come back for the same reason.


Local leaders appear to be taking note.

Town Council this week directed staff to work with American Tower, a Boston-based owner and operator of wireless and broadcast communication sites that recently asked to lease space for towers on two town-owned properties -- Crossings Park and the site of fire station No. 7.Council also asked staff to study ways to enhance wireless communication in town.

After rejecting similar requests for towers in the past, the town's latest decision may signal "a change in attitude," assistant town manager Curtis Coltrane said.

Mayoral candidate Jim Collett argues such a change is imperative if the island is to diversify its economy by luring companies not involved in the tourist trade, an oft-stated goal of town leaders.

Collett, one of six candidates seeking to replace outgoing Mayor Tom Peeples, has made improving telecommunications on the island a primary tenet of his campaign.

When corporate executives debate whether to come to Hilton Head, Collett said, they are likely to quickly ask two questions: "Can I get a commercial flight?" and "Will my cell phone work?"

If both questions aren't affirmatively answered, the island likely will fall out of contention for their business, he said.

Collett, who worked in the real estate and network planning for telecom firm Bell Atlantic for 25 years before it became Verizon, recommends the town hire a knowledgeable consultant to determine how it can improve cellular service.

"I think it's gotten to the point where it's starting to affect the economic health of the island," Collett said.

The Mayor's Task Force for the Future also has regularly discussed the topic and will likely include a recommendation about it in its upcoming report, said Peter Kristian, a member of the group and general manager of Hilton Head Plantation.


Although carriers say myriad issues affect cell-phone service, Kristian suspects the primary factor in Hilton Head's case is residents' aversion to disturbing the island's natural beauty with tall towers.

"They want the technology, but they want to feel like they're in a tropical paradise," Kristian said. "That's the paradox."

Debates have periodically flared as a result.

In the late 1990s, people packed Town Council chambers for several meetings to protest Hargray Wireless' plans to build a 130-foot tower near Hilton Head Plantation's Dolphin Head Golf Club. Hargray withdrew its request.

After the gated development's residents complained of reception problems for years, a task force studied the issue in 2003. The group considered seeking one or two larger towers before settling on a series of poles that rise just above the treeline.

Even though service has improved, Kristian says the development could still use additional poles. He encourages Hilton Head Plantation residents to call providers and demand better service.

Major carriers defend their area networks and say they regularly plan and invest in enhancements.

Karen Schulz, a spokeswoman for Verizon, said the company rarely hears complaints and consistently has few incomplete and dropped calls in the Hilton Head area, both overall and compared to competitors.

She acknowledged some "trouble areas" in the region but said service should only improve as the company continues to integrate its network with Alltel's, adds capacity at existing sites, and rolls out LTE, a next-generation network expected in some markets this year.

Stacey Harth, a spokeswoman for AT&T, said its coverage on the island also is strong.

On Hilton Head, carriers' signals can weaken inside buildings reinforced to withstand hurricanes, she said.

The company announced Friday that coverage of its third-generation mobile broadband network is expanding to new areas of Hilton Head and Bluffton.


The importance of cell-phone service should only grow as people increasingly rely on mobile devices to stay in touch from anywhere, advocates of better coverage say.

These days, even leisure travelers can't afford not to have access to work-related matters, Nason said.

His hotel has added devices called repeaters throughout its premises in an effort to boost coverage on the Sprint Nextel network.

Even that is not enough to bring call quality where Nason thinks it should be, however.

Unless the island's coverage improves, the Westin does not plan to participate in promotions that will zap coupons and promotions to guests' phones, he said.

One of the Westin's competitors is taking an even more ambitious step in hopes of curing one of guests' most common gripes. The Crowne Plaza Resort is investing $200,000 in a system that will take multiple carriers' signals from the top of the hotel and distribute them throughout the resort with devices that resemble smoke detectors, general manager Bob Krypel said.

Although he thinks the system will give his property a competitive advantage, he would prefer to see better coverage island-wide, he said.

Hilton Head is the 15th place Krypel has lived in his career and the first where dropped calls, dead zones and poor signals have been such a problem.

"I've never had to deal with this issue anywhere else before," he said.

Local leaders should think of access to technology as they would access to roads and water and sewer service, suggested Kim Statler, executive director of the Lowcountry Economic Network, a public-private organization that recruits business to the region.

"The days of turning your phone off are over," she said. "Completely unplugging doesn't hardly happen anymore."

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