WSAZ Investigates | Cell tower signals

Published: Oct. 13, 2020 at 10:12 PM EDT
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WAYNE, W.Va. (WSAZ) - It’s no secret rural Appalachia has struggled for years to bring internet signals and wireless connections to every hill, valley and neighborhood. Many families worry what will happen when they need to call for help during an emergency.

This is the story of one community’s quest for connectivity.

“It’s so aggravating because they destroyed the road building the tower and then you have no usage of it,” said Mary Damron.

Damron and her family have lived in the East Lynn area for about 30 years. She says one of the most frustrating things is lack of access to cellular signal.

“There is zero cell service where I live,” Damron said.

She and her family are preparing a new residence on their property, but they can’t help but think of something that was already built and completed nearby.

“I remember seeing them come in every day, and we were all excited cause we were having a tower come in,” Damron said. “Then two years passed and still no service.”

Up on a hill on Big Branch Road sits a cell phone tower. Records show it was built in 2018 and installed in 2018, but not much has changed since.

Nearby residents say cell service is spotty and non-existent in many areas, despite being able to see the tower from out their window.

Some have resorted to relying on landlines and home phones for an emergency.

State Sen. Mark Maynard lives not far from the tower and says he, too, cannot get signal at his home. He’s also a second generation business owner and cannot get service at work. He was contacted by Mary Damron to try and figure out what was going on.

“I’ve heard of this happening before of towers being erected and sitting idle but since this is so close and in my district I want to do all I can to make something happen for it,” Maynard said.

He’s been working to bring connectivity to his constituents for many years, including a trip to Washington, D.C. to the Federal Communications Commission.

“I had heard a rumor that they were not issuing permits for towers and they assured me that that was not the case,” Maynard said. “So I talked to a few cell phone providers, and it was mainly financial reasons that they did not provide service, they couldn’t see the advantages to them.”

We wanted to the see the towers for ourselves, up close and personal. Mary and Sen. Maynard hadn’t seen the tower in person either. So we threw it into four-wheel drive and headed up the hill.

We were hoping to get some answers and finally reached the top, thanks to a gracious homeowner.

Sen. Maynard was first up the hill and spotted a sign, that read “LCS Wireless.”

We had never heard of them, so we looked it up. It’s a 13-year-old company based out of North Carolina. During a phone conversation, they told us that the property is actually owned by Beacon Towers.

Our calls to Beacon Towers have gone unanswered.

Upon closer inspection, we found a small sticker labeling one of the matters that read “T-Mobile.”

So it appears that T-Mobile it utilizing the tower. We reached out to the provider, but haven’t heard back. The four of us on the hill only had phones with AT&T and Verizon networks, so we weren’t able to see if T-Mobile had strength at that location.

Meters are hooked up at a cell tower in Wayne, WV.
Meters are hooked up at a cell tower in Wayne, WV.(WSAZ)

We tested our signal at several locations. At Damron’s home, there was none. When we were on top of the hill, Maynard was able to get one bar if he stood in a specific spot.

“I can understand the cost of building a tower, but it’s here and it’s readily available and it could really help the community,” Damron said.

Maynard says even if more cell phone companies don’t come onboard, he’d like to explore other options on bringing stronger service to the area.

“So I kind of backed off of that and went in a WiFi direction and was going to try and work with AEP, who is working on fiber, to maybe see if we could provide some of these rural places who are underserved or unserved,” Maynard said.

Many major companies offer WiFi calling, which is a service that allows you to make voice and video calls using a wireless signal instead of cellular service.

“It would be a blessing to this area, and I believe I’m close enough at my residence and at my business that I would have service here," Maynard said. “It’d just be a game changer for this area and maybe a beacon to other parts of the state.”

It’s a path Damron and her neighbors hope the state of West Virginia will help them pave, all to get them better connected to those on the other end of the line.

“It’d be wonderful, it’d be life changing, absolutely,” Damron said.

Maynard is a member of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council. He tells WSAZ he can oftentimes drive two hours across his district and be without a cell signal, so he understands the frustration of his constituents.

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