TURNER – Ron Blake was headed home when a pickup truck nearly ran him off the road.

Like many Maine motorists, Blake had a cell phone. He used it to call 911.

He also followed the pickup truck, which was swerving through traffic, threatening to sideswipe other cars.

The call went through. But when he tried to describe the scene to a dispatcher, his line suddenly went dead. He called back a couple more times. Each time, he lost the signal before he was able to give a full account.

By the time he got a signal strong enough to provide complete details, the pickup truck was 10 miles down the road, having passed through several towns.

Blake wasn’t in northern Maine cruising the unorganized territories. The incident took place in Auburn. He was on his way home to Turner.

Every time Blake drives to work at the Auburn Plaza, his phone drops calls every mile or so. Even more frustrating: His cell phone company’s store is only a couple of miles down the street from work.

Closer to his home, a cell phone tower was erected recently on Route 4 in Turner. But, driving right past it, Blake says he can’t get even a faint signal.

Blake called his phone carrier to complain. They tried to pacify him. Then he called the State House. He’d heard Gov. John Baldacci is equally frustrated whenever he takes a road trip from the State House in his chauffeured car.

Connect ME?

“This made me think,” a reflective Baldacci said during his State of the State speech in January, “when will wireless service actually serve all of Maine?”

It’s needed, he said, to boost Maine’s economy.

So he launched “Connect ME.” Its goal: Make sure every community in Maine has “quality” wireless service by 2008. That’s 2 1/2 years away. It’s a sure thing, he said.

But is that realistic? How much will it cost?

Just how does he plan to make good on his promise?

And what does he mean by “100 percent of Maine communities” and “quality” service?

It turns out the answers are about as clear as the cell phone reception in much of Maine.

If you study the maps handed out by wireless providers hawking their phones and service plans in Maine, you might conclude the state is pretty well covered. But, if you’ve spent much time traveling the state, you realize that’s not the case.

Most of the state lacks clear reception. Even Portland, Bangor and the Twin Cities are riddled with black holes or, in cell phone jargon, dead zones.

Blame it on trees, tall buildings and steep hills and valleys. Uneven terrain is the biggest obstacle to consistent cell phone service, experts say. If Maine looked like the Atlantic Ocean on a calm day, we’d probably be able to talk uninterrupted no matter where we went.

The problem

You can’t fix the problem until you know where it is.

To do that, the state has been collecting intelligence on dead zones. The Office of the Public Advocate for months has been charting the location of lost calls or no signal reported by cell phone users.

The map shows dead spots exactly where you would expect strong signals – highly populated areas such as cities and major highways. In large part, that’s explained by numbers; there are more cell phone users in more populated areas hence they’re losing more calls there.

But don’t think that because Township 12 is spotless on the Public Advocate’s Web map that cell phone reception there is as clear as the water in the nearby Allagash River. It isn’t. It just means no one has yet trekked into that portion of the Maine wilderness and reported a weak signal.

This unscientific method is the best the state could come up with, short of spending a bundle on staffing Maine with signal checkers. It turns out that many of the dead zone reports to the public advocate actually come from state employees. Maybe that’s because they’re the ones most likely to have heard about the call-in program.

Cell phone providers conduct their own surveillance. They send out guys like the one seen on TV wading through remote streams uttering those ubiquitous words, “Can you hear me now?”

Those guys drive around in porcupine-looking cars covered with antennas. But don’t expect to find on their Web sites information they gleaned from their surveillance. Information about a cell phone company’s true range and signal quality is a well-guarded secret, along with exactly how many customers they have.

It’s so hush-hush that when Maine officials set out to document where wireless towers and antennas are actually located, they had to hire a private, third-party consultant to collect information. Otherwise, that seemingly proprietary knowledge would have become public record. The companies would have none of it.

That same consultant – paid for by six cell phone companies – is expected to grind that data into the grist of generic signal sites that can be plotted on a map without identifying whose tower or antenna it is.

The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t know either.

The basic requirements

At last count, Maine had about 600,000 cell phone users. The actual number is higher. But, providers with fewer than 10,000 customers in the state don’t have to report to the FCC, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Patrich.

When a carrier, or anybody for that matter, wants to erect a tower taller than 200 feet, that tower must be registered with the FCC. That way, the FCC can notify the Federal Aviation Administration so that no planes will run into it and knock it down.

Put up a 190-foot tower and no notification is needed, except at the local level. Unless, that is, the tower’s on a historical site, Indian grounds or environmentally sensitive land.

Nobody from the FCC will check.

Not to worry. Competitors are likely to rat each other out, Patrich said.

“It’s a bit on the honor system.”

That means there’s no way to tell just how many towers – and therefore antennas – are in Maine without checking with the planning departments in all 494 towns and cities.

Under federal law, cell phone service providers seeking licenses to operate in a specific coverage area are obliged to make service available to one-third of that area’s population within five years. After 10 years, two-thirds of the population area must be serviced, Patrich said.

That means carriers have to invest in their own antennas within those licensed areas and not simply rely on another company’s shared hardware for their customers to get the signal.

Providers must give the FCC maps showing penetration within those licensed areas. What they don’t need to do is tell the FCC exactly where their antennas are. Does the FCC ever check to make sure the companies are telling the truth about their claimed coverage?

“I can’t swear we don’t from time to time do that,” Patrich said. Sometimes engineers in FCC field offices will be dispatched to a licensee’s coverage area to check for themselves, she said.

But everyone acknowledges that even if a company is accurately describing its coverage area, that doesn’t mean a cell phone user anywhere in that area can get a good connection.

Priceless

So how is Baldacci going to keep his promise? And without spending a penny?

Ultimately, it means more antennas are needed. Even providers themselves don’t know yet exactly how many or where they need to go in order to meet the governor’s goal.

Baldacci is relying on the six wireless providers licensed in Maine to step up to the plate and hit him a home run. Remember, 100 percent of Maine’s communities. “Quality” service.

Technology will help the effort, by making smaller antennas that can hang off utility poles and water towers. They will fill in the dead zones left by the taller antennas. That means low-lying areas and buildings shouldn’t pose as great a challenge to cell phone users in the future.

As a sweetener, state officials have mapped out state-owned properties, including public buildings and towers, to which providers could strap their antennas – making the process potentially cheaper.

Wireless companies are businesses, and expect a return on such an investment. That means they want to see enough new cell phone customers using each new antenna to at least recoup the money they spent.

In many small northern Maine towns, that may not be possible, some providers have said.

“There’s always a drive to get payback quickly,” said John Liantonio, regional spokesman for Cingular.

Liantonio and other providers are hoping to dip into a pot of state money set aside for extending land-line telephone service to remote areas of Maine. Two companies in Maine already are drawing millions from a similar federal fund.

“I think that would be a fair use of that money,” Liantonio said. That money is controlled by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

At a recent meeting of providers, some advocated setting 2,500 as the minimum community population for targeting wireless service.

Baldacci could try to pass a law forcing the cell phone companies to do his bidding. But he’d rather use a soft hand than a hard stick, said spokesman Lee Umphrey.

If the companies don’t comply?

“They just won’t go to heaven,” Umphrey said.


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