Cruise ships loom over Skagway's Broadway Street. (Courtesy Skagway CVB)

Cruise ships loom over Skagway’s Broadway Street. (Courtesy Skagway CVB)

Unreliable cell phone service frustrated Skagway residents last summer. Some hope emerged in October, when AT&T announced plans to upgrade its network by summer of 2016. But a spokesman says those plans have stalled. And people in Skagway have noticed, as they slog through another summer of cell phone problems.

Skagway resident Andrew Cremata took to Facebook recently in an effort to hold AT&T accountable for what he sees as ‘lies’ from the company about upgrading its service for this summer.

“It’s just so in your face how much they don’t care about anyone,” Cremata said. “But they sure don’t mind cashing your check every month.”

Cremata says he pays about $150 each month on a shared cell phone plan. But instead of getting the service he feels he pays for…

“You can’t check your voicemail half of the time, some certain texts don’t go through and certain phone calls tend to get dropped a lot more frequently, especially ones that come from out state.”

Cremata’s Facebook post garnered more than 70 comments from other fed-up Skagway residents. One said she nearly lost her job because of phone issues, another said every aspect of her tour business is impacted because by the unreliable service.

So what happened to the upgrades that were supposed to be in place by this summer?

“They’ve just taken longer than we wanted to do,” said Chris Brown, AT&T’s Director of Network Services in Alaska.

There are multiple pieces to the AT&T technology puzzle that connects Skagway customers. One is the microwave radio tower, which used to be the only connection between Skagway and the rest of AT&T’s network. But last summer, an especially tall cruise ship blocked the tower’s path and cut out service.

“It was at that point we said we need to do something short-term and long-term,” Brown said. “The short term was to procure some fiber capacity so that we could avoid problems the rest of that summer until such time as we could raise the tower.”

Brown says AT&T turned that tower off and started using a fiber-optic connection instead. Now, the company is trying to make its tower taller, so the microwave radio connection is more reliable.

But getting the necessary permits from the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration is taking longer than expected, Brown says.

“Most of it has to do with the physical construction of the site and ensuring the FAA that the tower as it was would not violate the rules because of the proximity to the airport.”

Once the tower is raised, AT&T plans to turn on a 4G LTE network. The LTE equipment is meant to improve capacity between phones and the cell tower. Then the tower sends the communication back to the rest of the network. Brown says they can’t turn on the LTE service until the tower is raised.

“We don’t want to turn LTE service up until we have good capacity or it really doesn’t provide any advantage. If you have a very fast connection to cell site but you don’t have capacity to take that back to the rest of the network, typically it would not as good a user experience.”

Will these actions fix the service issues? Skagway residents probably won’t find out until next summer. Brown says the improvements should be in place by then. But Skagway is in a unique situation, with demand for service exponentially increasing about four months out of the year during cruise ship season. That presents a challenge for cell phone providers.

“We manage carefully that trade-off between the ability to serve customers during the peak time and the cost of maintaining a network that would be 20 times over-sized.”

Brown says AT&T typically doesn’t design a network to be perfect at the peak load.

“The economics of it would not be typically favorable.”

Brown says his company’s hope is for everyone in Skagway to be an AT&T user. But the recent problems have already lost them at least one customer. Cremata’s two-year contract ended recently, and he plans to switch to Verizon or GCI. Although, with the service issues that seem to plague Skagway every summer, he doesn’t have high expectations for those providers either.