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Selected Editorials from the Editor

Suns & Shields Christian Inspirational Writings by Rachelle Hamlin

Selected editorials from Dr. Katherine Albrecht, Ed. D.




Public Outcry for Increased

Cell Phone Service Area in Maine



Are More Cell Towers Really the Solution for Emergency Comms?


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, November 8, 2017

(above photo/David Deschesne)


   The death of a man stranded in Cyr Plantation last winter, who was not able to immediately call for emergency service due to cell phone reception problems, has prompted a statewide cry for increased cellular service in the fringe areas.  This cry is even reverberating throughout the Governor’s office.  However, lost in all the noise is the fact that cell phones are the least reliable mode of communication available while paradoxically and ironically being the most-used and relied-upon.

   Society has a love affair with their cell phones.  Scientific research has even shown that the area of a person’s brain that is activated when thinking about someone they love is also activated when thinking about their cell phone.

   In addition to an unhealthy infatuation with their technological device, society has come to view it as a primary mode of communication and panacea for all potential communication emergencies.  The reality is cell phones are quirky, low-powered microwave transmitters which transmit an even more quirky and unreliable digital bit-stream within a very limited geographical area.  This creates the need for a highly complex network of fragile cell towers to connect those low-powered devices to the rest of the world via a Go—No-Go digital bit-stream.  Taken as a whole, the reliance on such a sketchy method of communication by the masses is not a good solution for potential emergency communication scenarios, regardless of the number of cell towers deployed. 

  Anyone with a digital home satellite receiver knows how touchy that equipment can be and they have learned to suffer with dropouts during heavy clouds, rain, snow, or at times even fog.  Cell phones operate in the same frequency band and use similar digital encoding as those unreliable home satellite receivers.  For all their sleek styling and marketing gimmickry, cell phones really are the bottom of the line when it comes to robust signal output and communications ability when compared to other emergency communication options.

   It’s been suggested that the 911 emergency line be made available throughout the state for cell phones—especially in the desolate and sparsely populated northern Maine woods.  That, however, could end up costing more than the entire years’ salary of the collective population of Maine.

   Cell towers do not magically connect cell phones via the ether.   Regardless of where they are situated, cell towers must have access to electricity and a conventional telephone landline grid.  If that infrastructure is not there, it would have to first be installed.  Even if operating on solar or other off-grid power, the cost to string landline –either copper twisted pair, or fiber optic—could still run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per cell tower site, depending on its location.  And then there would have to be hundreds, if not thousands, of sites to make cell service available in every square inch of Maine’s currently under-served cell areas, which is what would be required for a monumental expansion of cell-based 911 service.

   Cell towers are repeater base stations that link with extremely low power handheld cell phone radios in order to integrate them with conventional landlines which connect the tower sites together.  Depending upon the terrain, trees and buildings a tower may have as little as two miles of coverage, or as much as 50 miles line of site from mountain top to mountain top. 

   Cell tower sites are not cheap to build.   “An average estimate for cell tower construction can be anywhere from $100,000 – $350,000 depending on materials, construction, labor, etc,” said Nick Foster, founder of Airwave Advisors.  “However, we have worked on projects where the construction costs incurred were closer to $1 million by the time the project was completed.”

   The pipe dream of making 911 cell phone service available throughout the state could ultimately cost an estimated $1 billion or more.  And then, there would still be the potential for dropouts and inadequate coverage for the very touchy, low-power digital signals emitted by those phones. 

   In addition to dropouts, cell phone signals are also subject to rationing.  For example, when all of the landlines connecting the tower site are being used, or channels available at that site are occupied,  there will be no service available until a line is freed up.  Cell phones, and the so-called “smart” devices so many people have become addicted to today, are essentially overpriced novelty toys with no place in a prudent emergency communication plan.

   Cellular telephone service is still a relatively new phenomenon.  Just thirty-five years ago wireless telephone based in vehicles used high powered radio transceivers connected to high powered base stations.  These expensive units were used primarily by businesses and professionals who could afford the equipment and maintenance.  Outside of that, there were no cell phones of the modern day variety. 

   A more viable alternative to emergency communications in fringe or underserved cell phone areas has been around for over 100 years—portable radios.

   Conventional CB radios and amateur (“Ham”) radio sets have been used for decades to provide local and long-range communications into the next town, or around the world.  While they do not have fancy apps, video games and the mindlessness of text messaging, CB and Ham radio will get  the message out when cell phones have no bars displayed on their signal strength meters.

   CB radios operate on 4 watts and do not require an FCC license.  They are good for local use up to 20 miles.  Channel 9 is designated as the emergency channel and was once monitored by police and other first-responders.  However, cell phone usage has pushed CB aside over the past two decades.  According to Steve McCausland, Public Information Officer for the Maine State Police, CB 9 is not monitored by them any longer.  “We do not monitor CBs,” McCausland told the Fort Fairfield Journal.  “With the popularity of cell phones, if someone needs help, call 911  or the State Police Houlton Dispatch Center direct at 532-5400.”  McCausland understands cell phones are prone to drop-outs and grey areas of unreliable reception and adds, “Landlines are still of value in those locations where cell phone reception is not reliable.”


A more reliable radio set than CB is the much higher powered amateur radio 2-meter VHF rig which is the size of a standard in-vehicle CB radio and also operates on vehicle power of 12 volts DC.  Amateur radios do require an FCC license, which the FCC provides for free after one takes a simple test through an authorized American Radio Relay League (ARRL) test administrator.  The licenses are valid for 10 years and are renewable for free, for life, without the need for further testing.  Radio sets for local communication average around $200 to $350 and, unlike cell phones, there is no monthly service charge associated with them.  Maine has nearly two dozen amateur radio repeater sites that are owned and monitored by local clubs throughout the state.  Since the power output of a standard VHF amateur radio transmitter for vehicle use is 50 watts, a user will most likely always be within range of a repeater site.  If not, the radios have the ability to select from a range of frequencies to communicate directly with other users in a pre-planned emergency communication plan. 

   Many amateur radio repeaters in Maine also integrate with a local telephone landline to allow for simplex (push to talk) communication over conventional telephone lines and the microphones feature numerical keypads for dialing.  Again, this is all done with no monthly fees (though it would be a good idea to join the local club who services the repeater so your dues can help offset maintenance and electricity costs, which are nominal in most cases).

  A variation of the Ham radio is the Marine Band radio which is licensed for use by watercraft operators.  Channel 16 is the designated international emergency calling channel and is monitored by various Coast Guards around the world.

   At this point, the quicker, cheaper and more efficient way to acquire a personal emergency communication option would be through amateur radio since the equipment is affordable and reliable, and the infrastructure already in place.  Even if Maine taxpayers gave up all their money to expand the landline infrastructure and build a massive array of cell towers in the desolate areas it would take years to accomplish the infrastructure upgrades and they would still suffer from adverse quality and signal dropouts due to the nature of the frequency band employed by those devices.

   Unreliability aside, cell phone users are also constantly exposing their skulls and reproductive organs to potentially harmful, near-field microwave radiation.  The technology is still too new to know what the long term health effects will be to habitual cell phone users.

   For more information on Ham radio either as a hobby or an emergency communication system, visit the ARRL’s website:







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