Dropped calls and slow download speeds should be a thing of the past later this year for Verizon Wireless customers in Hilton Head Plantation.
The wireless carrier said Wednesday it has asked cell-tower provider Crown Castle International to expand its antenna system inside the gated community to fill coverage gaps.
Crown Castle plans to install five additional antennas on telephone poles along Seabrook Drive, close to Ribaut Island, and along High Bluff Road to Hickory Forest, according to the community's general manager, Peter Kristian.
Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Karen Schulz said the carrier also will boost power to antennas already in place and extend its next-generation 4G network to the new areas.
Work is expected to begin in August.
Verizon brought its 4G Long Term Evolution network to Hilton Head Island and surrounding areas as part of a push into 140 new markets last year. Other carriers say they plan to bring their versions of the technology to the area, too.
Verizon says its technology promises data speeds 10 times faster than today's 3G networks.
"The first thing customers will see is greater speed," Schulz said. "It will take minutes instead of hours to download a full-length feature film. It will take seconds as opposed to minutes to download books, music and applications, as well as seamless video streaming."
The upgrade also should provide better penetration inside buildings than Verizon's current network and cast "a wider net of wireless coverage," she said.
"We are extremely excited about this because dropped cellphone service hasn't only become an important safety issue," Kristian said. "... Nowadays, people pull up to a house they're looking to buy and look at their cellphone. If they don't get two or three bars, they tell the Realtor, 'On to the next house.'"
'LOW KEY' ALTERNATIVE TO TOWERS
Crown Castle installed its antenna system inside Hilton Head Plantation in 2005 as a "low-key, far less obtrusive" alternative to a cell tower, Kristian said.
The system consisted of a network of antennas mounted to 70- to 80-foot-tall telephone poles that poke just above the tree line, where they are well-hidden."Unless I pointed it out to you, you'd never see them," Kristian said.
The disadvantage is that, because of the antennas' height, cellphone signals can be disrupted by trees, which Hilton Head Plantation and the island have plenty of, said Jim Collett, chairman of an island task force seeking to improve wireless service.Verizon recently completed testing in the plantation in response to customer complaints and discussions with the task force and representatives of the community's property owners association. The tests verified the need for the additional antennas, Collett wrote in response to an Island Packet email.
But don't expect to see more antennas elsewhere on the island -- the "distributed antenna systems" are expensive and not as effective as taller towers would be, according to Collett.
"Verizon has told us that they did not see extending distributed systems elsewhere on Hilton Head Island for those reasons," he wrote.
OTHER CARRIERS PLANNING 4G EXPANSION
AT&T provides two 4G networks to its customers, the faster LTE and slower High Speed Packet Access-plus.
HSPA-plus already is in place on Hilton Head, and nationwide LTE deployment is expected to be completed by the end of 2013, according to a company spokeswoman.
"Our LTE network is expanding rapidly and achieving speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G," AT&T communications manager Ann Elsas wrote in an email. "And our HSPA-plus network ... covers more customers than any competitor's 4G network and delivers great speeds up to four times faster than 3G."
Elsas said AT&T could not disclose specific plans for upgrades in specific markets.
T-Mobile has said it also plans to bring 4G service to the area but has not said when.