HARTLAND, Maine — As far as cell phone service went, downtown Hartland was always a dead zone.
Calls could sometimes be sent or received and the occasional text message made it through, but for the most part, use of a cell phone in this southern Somerset County town ended in frustration. But since last month, when U.S. Cellular activated a new tower in the area, service has been crystal-clear.
“Hartland has for a long time been known as a dead zone,” said Town Manager Larry Post. “I’ve heard from a few residents that are suddenly standing in awe that they can get service.”
Chuck Hojohn, the facilities manager for Prime Tanning, the town’s largest employer, said he noticed an immediate difference.
“I’ve got to tell you, right now my cell phone is ringing off the hook,” said Hojohn. “Customers, vendors and all the people we do business with can reach me even when I’m out and about in the facility. We’re able to handle things in a more timely manner.”
As communications technology advances, the need for it does, too. In the business world, a strong cell phone signal is just another in an arsenal of tools that enables a venture to do business on the same playing field as its competitors.
“We use whatever tools are available to us,” said Mark Ouellette, director of business development for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. “Certainly cell phones are one of the tools that enhances a business’s ability to compete. That’s the bottom line.”
Ouellette said cell phone service “isn’t a major factor” in a business’s deciding whether to expand in or relocate to a certain area, but it is “part of the overall incentives package.”
“For the most part, it’s one of those things [entrepreneurs] expect to have,” said Ouellette.
Determining how many cell phone towers there are in Maine and at what rate they’re expanding is an elusive goal. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection becomes involved in the permitting for many new towers, but doesn’t distinguish cell towers from other types of development in its record-keeping. There is lit-tle question, though, that new towers are going up with regularity.
“Each cell phone company is scrambling to put cell towers up everywhere,” said Amy Lemelin, a field services representative for the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Regulation. Verizon Wireless, U.S. Cellular and AT&T have reported activating new towers in Maine in the past year, according to Bangor Daily News archives.
Mark Gartley, a regional construction manager for U.S. Cellular, said there are generally three reasons his company would build a tower: to increase capacity, to provide coverage in dead zones caused by geography or to expand into new areas. He said U.S. Cellular receives many requests for new service, including from busi-nesses.
“We welcome those requests, but we can’t possible supply all of them,” he said. “There’s no distinguishing between the schoolchild, the mother, the father, the business owner or the county sheriff. They all need cell service.”
Eric Conlon, director of sales for U.S. Cellular in New England, said his company is building new towers at a clip of about 20 a year in Maine. Verizon Wireless activated more than 90 new towers in Maine in 2009, according to a recent press release.
As coverage expands, so does the use of it in the business world. John Cobb, an information technology infrastructure analyst for Bangor Hydro Electric Co., said his company is using cellular technology in ways that weren’t dreamed of just a few years ago. For instance, the company can track not only where every truck in its fleet is at any moment, but also each vehicle’s diagnostics and whether its boom is deployed. Cellular service also allows for Internet capabilities in the field and safety devices that allow employees to summon help in an emergency. Bangor Hydro uses both U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless.
“Ten years ago this would have been seen as a little futuristic,” said Cobb. “This way, everyone knows what’s going on at the same time. It certainly helps us keep a toe-hold on rates, provide better service to our customers and get their power restored more quickly in an outage.”