Leelanau News and Events

Bridging the Signal Gap: Verizon, T-Mobile Plan More Cell Towers to Boost Coverage

By Kierstin Gunsberg | Sept. 22, 2023

Dropped calls, undelivered texts, and sluggish data connections throughout Leelanau County have prompted frustration and raised concerns about emergency communication. But network carriers say they’re gearing up to install new cell towers to close the coverage gaps.

In response to customer complaints over inconsistent coverage, Verizon says they’re working to add more 5G coverage to the peninsula and that “with the cooperation of the zoning and licensing arms of the county” they have an “aggressive build plan for the coming year” that includes expanded coverage to Northport and Leland, plus areas along Sleeping Bear Dunes and M-22.

A spokesperson for T-Mobile says they’re also planning to upgrade and build new network sites to “enhance” their 4G and 5G coverage of the area. Where and when those upgrades and builds will happen was not explicitly stated.

It can’t come soon enough for up north commuters like Kayla Bell, whose service provider Spectrum Mobile uses Verizon’s network towers. “Last week [I] drove over to Sleeping Bear Dunes and my cell service completely went out so I couldn’t call anyone or use GPS,” says Bell. “I can’t remember that happening last time I was there.” As the summer months bring a surge of tourists to the area, network congestion becomes a common culprit for poor service.

But the issue isn't just a seasonal setback. Year-round residents like Courtney Yaple have learned to navigate the areas notorious for dead zones. "We just know the spots that don't have reception and plan around it," Yaple explains.

The winner for best talk, text, and data coverage across the county is up for debate, but Yaple says for her it’s been AT&T, which recently invested nearly $1.5 billion in infrastructure around the state. Still, she’s often left without service and explains that it’s not just an inconvenience; it’s a safety concern. When it comes to traveling to nearby parks and beaches where she knows there won’t be any service, she says she tells someone where she’ll be "because while I'm there, there's no way to call or text if something happened.” Even the web site for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore asks visitors to practice extra caution because areas of the park have zero reception.

It turns out that the very things that make Leelanau a picturesque retreat – rolling hills, wide open fields, and miles of undisturbed lakeshore – also create issues when it comes to service coverage

“We recognize there are challenge areas in Leelanau County, Michigan,” says a Verizon spokesperson. “The topography of this area makes [the] line of site for wireless signals and [the] construction of towers challenging.”

Director of Emergency Management Matt Ansorge agrees, noting, “Unfortunately, trees and hills cause problems with cellular, broadband, and radio reception.” According to Ansorge, during emergencies, most callers in areas with poor service are able to relocate to an area with better service to make 911 calls. “There are, however, times when callers are not able to be heard,” he says.

For times like that, dispatchers can bypass cellular communication altogether. “We have systems in place that assist our dispatchers in obtaining location information of callers.” Those systems include RapidSOS, which gathers GPS coordinates from the caller to narrow down their emergency location. Ansorge says they also use TexTTY, a tool that allows emergency dispatchers to respond to 911 calls via text message, even in low-signal situations, because texting requires less demand on local cell networks than making a call would.

The expansion of 5G networks could actually be temporarily contributing to coverage inconsistencies until the networks are fully built out: 5G, which is a short-range technology, requires more cell towers–and more time, money, and approval–to cover an area than the long-range 4G towers do.

Meanwhile, as broadband internet technology expands throughout the county, cell data might improve since most phones can utilize fiber broadband technology to provide a high-speed and stable internet backbone for cell towers to connect to. That translates to improved data speed and reduced network congestion.  

Until these promised network upgrades happen, users will have to continue navigating signal woes. “It’s a nuisance,” says Yaple, “but something we’ve gotten used to.”


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