Spotty cell phone coverage is more than an inconvenience to Skipper Paul Field and members of Fripp Island Sea Rescue.
It creates a potential danger to boaters in his area.
Since Labor Day, cell service on Fripp Island has been erratic and unreliable, Field said, adding numerous calls for help to the agency's cell phone service provider, Sprint, have fallen on deaf ears.
"I've spent 20 to 24 hours on the phone over the past week with Sprint," Field said. "You can never get back to the person who was originally helping you, and it's like there is a solid steel wall in their system to prevent you from getting to anyone in management."
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Field said the problem has not caused the all-volunteer rescue group to miss any calls. Nonetheless, the coverage woes are worrisome for Fripp Island Sea Rescue, which is dispatched by cell phone to nearby maritime emergencies by the Coast Guard and the Beaufort County Dispatch Center.
"You could be sitting still, and the signal will go from roaming to full strength in the matter of one minute," Field said. "My biggest concern is that we'll miss a call or be five or 10 minutes late. Five minutes could be the difference between life and death to someone in the water. If this had happened this summer, all hell would have broken loose. We were running two to three calls a day."
Roni Singleton, a Sprint spokeswoman, said the sporadic coverage has been caused by problems with the network's antenna, which is affixed to the island's water tower and a local exchange carrier linked to Sprint's system.
Local exchange carriers lease telephone lines and fiber-optic cables to wireless companies to allow cellular calls to be placed. Singleton said Sprint technicians believe they have resolved the issue, and customers should soon begin receiving steady coverage.
Spotty cell phone coverage isn't just a problem for Fripp Island Sea Rescue.
Angie Hughes, office manager for the Fripp Island Public Service District, said Sprint customers all over the island have experienced the same difficulties with their service and the same frustrations getting the problem addressed.
"We've had the same phones for the past three or four years, and we've never had a problem until the last few weeks," Hughes said. "A lot of people on the island with Sprint seem to have been having the same issue. We've attempted to make Sprint aware of the problem, but Sprint is such a huge company. It's hard to get anyone who can give you anything other than their boilerplate answer."
Fripp Island Fire Chief Joshua Horton, who also has a Sprint cell phone, has tried to keep the problem in perspective.
"It can be frustrating at times, but I try to keep in mind that we are on a barrier island 30 miles from town," Horton said.