AT&T to install new tower in Williamsburg

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September 30, 2010

10:50 PM

After years of frustration, AT&T users at the College of William and Mary should see improved cell phone coverage on campus by the end of October with the completion of new Distributed Antenna Systems at Zable Stadium and the William and Mary Law School.

For many years, AT&T users have had substandard coverage, particularly inside buildings on campus, resulting in countless missed phone calls and text messages.

“My freshman year, no one could ever get a hold of me whenever I was inside my dorm because I had no service inside,” AT&T user Laura Caligiuri ’12 said. “I have considered switching to Verizon, but it is awful back home, and it would be too expensive to have my own phone plan.”

Crown Castle International, a Texas-based communications company with 24,800 cell towers in the United States and Australia, will be installing the new antennae, and has brokered contracts with AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. The construction of the new DASs was approved by the Williamsburg Planning Commission in September 2009 and should be completed by the end of October 2010.

A distributed antennae system splits the transmission power of a single, taller antenna into several smaller ones, spaced to cover the same area as the single antenna, but with reduced total power. Unlike those on 100-foot-plus towers, the antennae in DASs are much smaller. Some antennae systems resemble 50-foot flagpoles, while others can be installed inside buildings. There are already several antennae located in downtown Williamsburg, including inside the cupolas of Barrett Hall, which serves Verizon only, Alan B. Miller Hall and the Williamsburg United Methodist Church on Richmond Road.

The City of Williamsburg has prohibited cell phone carriers and third-party companies from building large cell phone towers in order to maintain the historic look of the community.

“Williamsburg was the first city to bury all of its utilities underground, and there is no desire to change that standard,” Douglas Marty, director of information technology at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said.

Before signing on to Crown Castle International’s initiative, AT&T proposed to build a tower near the Cedar Grove Cemetery by the law school, but officials did not feel that it conformed with Williamsburg’s historic appearance, so the proposal was terminated.

Without cell towers, DASs are the only technology available to improve coverage in the Williamsburg community. According to Elaine McBeth, chair of the Williamsburg Planning Commission, every proposal to build new DASs has been approved to improve coverage for residents and tourists.

Unfortunately for AT&T users, the wireless provider has been slow to improve service in Williamsburg. The rise in complaints from students has been the main reason it has tried to make changes in the city over the past few years.

“We’ve received a lot of complaints over the last few years about AT&T, largely because many people on campus use smart phones, and also because it is very popular in northern Virginia, the home of many students,” Courtney Carpenter, the chief information officer of Information Technology at the College, said.

The closest towers that serve AT&T are located near Route 199 and simply cannot transmit strong cell phone signals to campus from such a distance.

Another reason why service from AT&T is not as good as Verizon on campus is because the two carriers operate at different frequencies. AT&T frequencies measure at 1.9 Gigahertz, while those of Verizon are 800 Megahertz. Lower frequencies are better able to penetrate the walls of buildings, but the higher frequencies are faster and allow for higher-quality calls and fewer call drops. Verizon has more coverage in more places, but the quality of the service is not as good as that of AT&T.

If coverage is significantly improved once the new distributed antennae are installed, AT&T may win back some customers. Eileen Henderson ’13, who switched from AT&T to Verizon during her freshman year because she had no service in her dorm, said she would like to return to AT&T as soon as possible.

“I definitely want to go back to AT&T as soon as there’s service here, or after graduation,” she said. “While I get service in Williamsburg with Verizon, my service back home is patchy and I have been having problems with my phone dropping calls and sporadically turning itself off even when it has a full battery.”

Henderson will continue to use Verizon for now, but remains frustrated with the poor coverage from AT&T on campus.

“The weird thing was that I’ve always had good service with AT&T,” she said. “I got service in the middle of South Dakota, but not in Williamsburg.”

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