Rare phone booths in front of  the Skagway AP&T facility. With pay phones a thing of the past, is poor cell service a threat to public safety? Photo by Greta Mart

Rare phone booths in front of the Skagway AP&T facility. With pay phones a thing of the past, is poor cell service a threat to public safety? Photo by Greta Mart

By Greta Mart/KHNS

Feelings of frustration and anger are growing among many Skagway cell phone customers this summer. Residents say that since the start of the 2015 cruise ship season, connectivity has deteriorated to the point of dysfunction. Customers are still required to pay their monthly bill, but for what service?

Here are what a few Skagway AT&T customers have to say about the issue:

“The one common denominator is the fact that when there are a bunch of cruise ships in port, it doesn’t work properly,” said Andrew Cremata.

“This is the first summer where I’ll just either get no service or dropped calls or my data is extremely slow or will not connect at all,” said Nicholle Chandler.

 

“My big problem and the reason I wrote the Better Business Bureau and my senator is that it’s starting to interfere with my work life,” said Chris Potter “I can’t communicate with my boss; it’s a very key tool to functioning properly at work, with my job.”

“Some part of my service won’t work at some part of every day,” said Crystal Rain. “Sometimes  my text messages won’t go through or I won’t receive them from other people. Sometimes I can’t make phone calls or they’re dropped…  I just can’t figure out when something is going to work or not.”

Those residents are among many who are increasingly vexed over what they say is unacceptable cell phone service.

This summer’s connectivity issues in Skagway are putting the kibosh on friends talking to friends. But the continuing disruption in cell service is thwarting new customers from reaching businesses and hampering credit card processing. And many worry that unreliable cell service poses a threat to public safety.

“I’ve had people on the assembly and others comment to me about the cell phone service and I’ve noticed it myself that we’ve had problems. It’s really frustrating for everybody – ourselves included,” said Skagway Borough Manager Scott Hahn. “So we’ve looked into this stuff but we haven’t found any good avenue other than people complaining. In fact, the numbers of complaints are going to do more than just having Mama Municipality voice their concerns, in my opinion.”

It’s hard to determine what is actually causing the break down in service. AT&T, GCI and Verizon provide cell phone service in Skagway and customers of all three companies are reporting ongoing problems with connectivity during daytime hours on every day of the week.

“They are always trying to tell me it has something to do with my device. I’ve reiterated that it’s an entire town that has problems regardless of device type, device capability, service, carrier – and they just keep giving me the same broken-record answer,” said AT&T customer Crystal Rain.

Then there’s specific town-wide phone outages like the one that occurred Thursday morning. According to Tom Cochran of Alaska Power and Telephone, a portion of their customers lost long-distance phone service early in the morning and as of mid-day, the company was still trying to resolve the problem. Cochran says some kind of outage regularly happens on Thursdays when the Ruby Princess arrives at the Ore Dock.

“In talking to AT&T this morning, they actually tried to adjust the angle of the antenna, before the ship got there, but it didn’t necessary seem to work,” said Kirby Day, spokesman for Princess Cruises. Day says his company is fully aware of the Thursday outages in Skagway, and that for the past two weeks, Princess Cruises has been ‘actively working’ with AT&T to come up with a solution.

“We believe, we’re not one hundred percent sure, but we believe that the Ruby Princess being one deck higher, taller than most of the ships that have typically been at the ore dock in the past may be blocking the line of sight for the antenna for AT&T,” said Day.

The Ruby Princess is scheduled to berth at the Ore Dock in Skagway every Thursday through Sept. 10th, so outages are expected to keep happening unless AT&T relocates its telecommunications infrastructure at 108 Alaska Street. The site is called a point of presence and its 2012 antenna structure registration form filed with the FCC says it’s 34 feet above ground level.

As for the reported ongoing problems with Skagway cell service, wireless companies are not forthcoming with specific reasons. KHNS reached out to AT&T for comment and spokesman Andy Colley declined an interview. Instead he emailed a company statement that said “when multiple cruise ships pull into port they may interfere with [AT&T’s] wireless network signal and affect coverage at times.”

The statement also says the company is investigating the issue and working to return service to normal as soon as possible. The problem Skagway customers have is that normal service is no longer acceptable.

On July 23, a day-long outage affected hundreds of Skagway cell phone and landline customers. When Skagway AT&T customer Andrew Cremata called the company that day to complain once again…

“The customer service representative said well it’s says here in bold red print on my computer screen that the tower is severely degraded,” said Cremata, adding that he doesn’t buy the blocking cruise ship theory. Maybe it’s causing the Thursday outages connected to the Ruby, but he doesn’t believe the cruise ships are to blame for all of Skagway’s cell phone problems this summer.

“A cruise ship doesn’t from a 360 degree angle, it would only block a certain amount of the town. So I don’t know if I necessarily believe that to begin with,” said Cremata.

Last Friday, July 30th, Verizon upgraded their cell service in Skagway by partnering with Ketchikan Public Utilities. KPU owns a cell site in Skagway which Verizon customers now use.

“Since Friday, there’s been a tremendous uptick of course in data usage. It’s a 4G LTE network, which is the fastest kind,” said Verizon spokesman Scott Charlston.

But that doesn’t help Skagway wireless customers who are locked into a contract.

Hahn encourages unhappy cell phone customers to complain to their carrier.

“What will really get AT&T listening is if the numbers come in of complaints…I think that’s what happened with Verizon is that they were getting so many complaints from cruise ship passengers that that volume was too much to handle so they complied with trying to improve service,” said Hahn.

Customers can also submit complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates cell phone companies across the country. Complaints can be filed online via the FCC’s Consumer Help Center.