LINCOLN, Maine — Medway resident Penny Cox can remember how a lack of transmission towers turned parts of Route 157 in that town into a black hole for her cell phone five years ago.
“It was a total dead zone,” Cox said Friday. “It’s a lot better now, probably 80 or 90 percent better. You wouldn’t be able to use the phone at all in that area back then.”
Cox was in a U.S. Cellular franchise store on West Broadway purchasing a pink Samsung Gloss u440 cell phone with a miniature full keyboard. She is what U.S. Cellular likes to see these days — a loyal customer upgrading to take advantage of the company’s new 3G wide-area wireless voice telephone, video calls and wireless data services, which launch Monday.
Partially a response to increased competition from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, U.S. Cellular’s new offerings are the latest sign of how rural northern Maine, a once moribund area for cell phone signals, is becoming a hotbed of cellular rivalry, cell phone providers say.
AT&T announced in early June that it had 10 of 15 planned new cell sites now operational as part of nearly $70 million in capital investments in its Maine technology infrastructure since 2006, company spokesmen say.
While well south of Lincoln, the new cell sites — in Hampden, Wells, Hiram, Lewiston, Lisbon, Hermon, Brewer, York, Falmouth and Holden — build upon AT&T’s overall expansion into Maine, which included eight new cell sites last year in Auburn, Wiscasset, Orland, Orono, Cape Elizabeth, Berwick, Shapleigh and Winterport, AT&T said.
Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, has added more than 90 new 3G cell sites to Maine over the past eight months, its spokesmen say. The company has 10 corporate-owned retail outlets, including Evolution stores that have opened in Augusta, Bangor, Presque Isle and Waterville since May 2008 as part of its merger with Unicel.
The Evolution stores, Verizon Wireless says, represent a change in retail design that offers consumers a high-tech and hands-on experience with wireless voice, data, music and video products. Verizon Wireless also recently launched the Verizon Wireless Network Extender, a small device that enhances the wireless signal for telephoning, texting and sending picture messages within remote and mountainous regions.
Typically regarded as one of the best cell phone providers in northern Maine, U.S. Cellular has definitely been preparing for the competition as its rivals advance northward, said Eric Conlon, director of sales for U.S. Cellular in New England.
“We have served the area longest, since 1988,” Conlon said. “North of Bangor, you really only had two providers serving the area — us and Verizon. Anytime a competitor comes into an area where it didn’t serve before, you notice.”
The most intense competition, Conlon said, remains in southern Maine. That’s where AT&T has new retail wireless locations offering 3G service in Auburn, Brunswick, Portland, Saco, Scarborough, South Portland and Windham, company officials said. Its northernmost store is in Ellsworth, though it also sells products through national retailers, including Radio Shack, Best Buy and Wal-Mart.
In response, U.S. Cellular spent $17 million in 2008 and expects to spend another $20 million by Dec. 31 with the launch of its 3G network and 20 new cell towers, Conlon said. The company has about 270 cell sites and 63 stores in Maine.
The new 3G network and towers are the key, cellular providers agree, to their growth plans. Besides vastly improving signal strength for all cell phone users, the network and towers will allow providers to capture a vast and hitherto largely untapped market: Only 13.4 percent of all Maine households have only wireless phones, Conlon said.
“That’s not the lowest number in the U.S., but it’s not in the upper third, either,” he said. “There’s definitely room for growth there.”
The fastest cellular network technology commercially available today, 3G creates enough signal bandwidth to simultaneously service laptops, smart phones and personal handheld data assistants that can be carried anywhere, Verizon Wireless spokesman Mike Murphy said.
Given their technological versatility and low cost — most bills for 3G services start at about $40 a month — cellular providers are betting that consumers eventually will want to entrust all of their communications to a single device, or several small devices, all transmitting by 3G.
“Cell phones used to just be for making phone calls,” Murphy said. “Now they are used for so many different things, and the growth in the industry is due in large part to data applications that run on devices. This makes having hands-on retail environments and robust 3G data networks so important for the future.”