Task force, research firm to test island cellphone coverage

August 1, 2011 

A Seattle-based research firm has partnered with a Hilton Head Island task force to debunk myths about mobile carriers' marketing claims and put pressure on wireless service providers to improve their networks.

And it's asking for volunteers to help.

RootMetrics, founded in 2008, measures the quality of wireless phone service across the country and sells the information back to carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

The company provides a downloadable application for Android-powered smartphones and iPhones that measures carriers' upload and download speeds and signal strength, using that data to build coverage maps. It asks residents to use those applications to help them map coverage.

"We aggregate actual performance data from thousands of participating cellphone users. It's done automatically and anonymously when you sign up," said RootMetric CEO Bill Moore. "Our goal is to give consumers in every location the right information to decide which mobile carrier is right for them."

The more data collected, the more complete and accurate the picture.

"Our mission is to be the voice of the consumer," Moore said. "... The whole subject of coverage -- where it is and where it isn't -- has been a mystery to consumers."

For example, a Verizon map shows nearly all of Hilton Head Island covered. In reality, coverage is spotty across the island, with some areas better than others, according to testing using the mobile app.

"If you look at our maps, you can see the granularity and differences taking place -- the ability to see reality as opposed to what is largely marketing," Moore said. "You're getting real data under real-world conditions."

A group of telecommunications industry experts formed by former Hilton Head mayoral candidate Jim Collett is using the company to show the coverage woes and persuade carriers to improve service.

So far, so good.

Task force volunteers and town, county and state officials met recently with Verizon Wireless regional executives. Mayor Drew Laughlin sent a letter in June to Verizon Communications chairman Ivan Seidenberg about improving the carrier's service to the island.

"Over 2 million people visit our island every year. One of the things that colors their experience is the quality of cellphone coverage they get while they are here," Laughlin wrote.

The island's tree canopy, flat terrain and low elevation make receiving cellphone signals difficult.

The meeting resulted in a commitment by Verizon to enhance coverage inside Hilton Head Plantation and perform a detailed test-drive of the island, Collett said.

In return, the task force has agreed to help Verizon get access to gated communities and to work with a committee removing roadblocks in the town's permitting process for erecting new antennas, he said.

"Coverage doesn't get better unless cellphone carriers choose to spend more money on Hilton Head," Collett said. "But we can make it easier for the cell companies to spend that money by communicating problem areas on the island and improving the speed of the process to get approval for new cell towers."

Lisa Smith, outside counsel for Verizon with the Pennington Law Firm in Columbia, said the town's permitting process is too arduous.

"It is a long process with multiple steps and levels of review, and they have to run concurrently or else you backtrack," Smith said. "I think this is a great idea -- to open the communication lines with carriers to agree on problems and get new (cell) sites built."

The task force has mapped AT&T and Verizon coverage for most of the island but still needs data taken at various times of the day and week. The group has almost no data for Sprint or T-Mobile, Collett said.

"We've come a long way in a short time, but we still have a long way to go," he said. "We need help, and this is a great way for the community to be part of the solution."

Follow staff writer Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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