Cellular dead spots…

Nov 30, 2023
Written by: Marvin Baker

In this day and age you wouldn’t think something so simple as cellular telephone coverage would be so spotty, but it is.
There are numerous “dead spots” across North Dakota, and depending on where you experience this, you sometimes have to shake your head because it really shouldn’t be rocket science.


Joel Heitkamp talked about this on KFGO radio one day, but I’m not sure anything was ever done to rectify the situation. I personally don’t remember where all the spots are in the state, but I do remember people calling in. One lost signal between Valley City and Fargo on Interstate 94, another near Hebron.


There are different perceptions on how far a cell signal will travel. Some companies say 5 to 7 miles, while others say up to 25 miles, with the caveat that depends on the height of the tower and the strength of the transmitted signal.


Most cell signals are in the 900 megahertz range and beyond. That means they won’t travel beyond the line of sight, which explains why when you are in a deep valley or behind a large hill, or even certain buildings, you lose your signal.
But there are situations, such as in my own case, in which I’m 6 miles east of a tower and I lose contact. In another, I’m 13 miles south of the tower and lose contact temporarily until I’m 12 miles from a new tower.


One thing the cell companies could do is boost their transmitting power in areas where there are problems. If the signal is strong enough, it will penetrate anything. Unfortunately, there are two things to consider. No. 1, a boost in signal costs money for increased electricity. Powerful radio signals aren’t cheap. No. 2, if the signal is strong enough and you are close enough to the tower, it could fry your SMART phone.


Several years ago a Winnipeg FM radio stations was pushing out 360,000 watts of power. In the United States, the legal limit is 100,000 watts. So this radio station, CITI on 92.1 was more than three times the legal limit just 60 miles north of Pembina.
Back in those days, I traveled to Winnipeg a lot for various reasons. One day I was curious, so I parked as close as I could get to the CITI-FM tower… about 30 feet from the base… tuned into 92.1 and weird things started to happen to the radio save for catching fire.


CITI-FM blew all over the dial and it even entered kilohertz space, meaning it was automatically retransmitting on several frequencies on the AM dial because the signal was so powerful.


A similar, localized thing would happen to cellular if the companies jacked the power of the transmitted signal. That means these companies are walking a fine line between satisfying all their customers and disturbing those who live right under a transmitter.


So what is the answer? Maybe they could increase their power just a bit. Maybe they could raise the tower just a bit. Maybe they could go to a slightly higher frequency to penetrate more objects.


I think most of us understand that if we are standing in the Badlands, the Pembina Gorge or parts of the Sheyenne River Valley, we’ll lose signal.
But on the flat?


Another interesting problem with cellular is for those living close to the Canadian border. Often times they’ll get roaming charges off a nearby Canadian tower. Many try to dispute the higher charges and end up with nothing more than frustration.
This situation was featured on “The Current,” a program on CBC Radio. They interviewed several people in North Dakota who have dealt with these roaming charges, even by calling neighbors just a few miles away.


One would think there would be a way to rectify that situation. We put people on the moon, we’ve created high definition television and radio and artificial intelligence is becoming a thing. But in some cases, a cell signal can’t reach more than 5 or 6 miles.


If North Dakota wants to remain a leader in technology, broadband and communication, cellular will need some updates.

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