VIENNA — Darleah Van Hise with AT&T’s FirstNet Team and AT&T’s Regional Director of External Affairs Jeremy Ketterer met with Maries and Osage County residents at the …
VIENNA — Darleah Van Hise with AT&T’s FirstNet Team and AT&T’s Regional Director of External Affairs Jeremy Ketterer met with Maries and Osage County residents at the Maries-Osage Ambulance District’s (MOAD) Vienna base on May 11 to hear concerns about phone service and internet connectivity in the area.
MOAD Administrator Carla Butler organized the meeting because of internet connectivity issues the district has experienced at the Vienna base. At the April MOAD board meeting, she told board members that poor internet connectivity sometimes caused her to work from home. It also sometimes prevented staff members from submitting reports.
The MOAD Facebook page posted an invitation to community members a couple of days before the meeting. About 15 community members and public servants attended the meeting.
The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created FirstNet, which is an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. FirstNet established and maintains a broadband network for public safety authorities.
“The number one lesson they learned from 9/11 in the first responder community was that communication networks will crash in the time of a mass emergency event because everybody is trying to access the antennas,” said Chief Deputy Scott John with the Maries County Sheriff’s Office.
He said first responders use phones with the FirstNet service, which prioritizes those devices over others when it comes to using bandwidth.
“If you’re on the (phone) tower, and I try to call or send a text, it will literally kick somebody from the tower and allow my phone to connect so I can get through,” John said. “It’s a massive improvement for first responders during a communications event.”
Although FirstNet prioritizes first responders, other eligible people at a lower priority include road commissioners, military members, school principals and superintendents and others who may need to make important phone calls in emergency situations.
FirstNet does not provide better service to first responders. John said it is only as good as the cell phone service in the area. His calls still drop in areas with poor service.
“The FirstNet program does work for us,” he said. “But again, it depends on being able to reach a tower.”
Vienna Quik Spot owner Jason Kampeter asked about the quality of 5G technology. The term 5G refers to the “fifth generation” of global wireless network standards.
John said 5G is faster than 4G or LTE networks, but previous networks had stronger signals. The weaker signal means 5G needs more cell phone towers to operate best.
“The signal doesn’t transmit as far, which is why our signal deteriorated in the area,” he said. “While the service has improved, we haven’t increased in towers.”
The attendees asked about the cell phone tower under construction on Highway 42 near the Vienna Public Cemetery. At first, Ketterer said he was unsure if it was an AT&T tower because the company has about 70 tower projects in the region. Later in the meeting, he confirmed that it is an AT&T tower, and 2024 is when it should be operational.
John said he would expect the new cell phone tower to improve service in the area. He lives in Vichy, and he said a tower project there improved service for that area.
Van Hise said that AT&T has a program that allows landowners to apply to lease a tower on their property. The website to apply is landlordportal.att.com.
“There’s a really good chance, especially in a community like this, that it would be approved as long as it meets the criteria for the network team,” she said.
Goldi Belcher, who manages the Family Dollar/Dollar Tree in Vienna, said that even working at a location on Highway 63 has caused problems with nonexistent cell phone reception.
“Along (Highway) 63 is terrible,” Butler said.
“It’s not uncommon to lose a call just driving through town,” John said. “You drop a call driving through the county seat. You should be able to travel 63. It’s the number one highway in the county and you can’t drive it without dropping a call.”
Also on Highway 63 is the Vienna Quik Spot. Kampeter said for about a month, the business has struggled to receive lunch orders at the deli because the phone struggles to connect when someone calls.
“Every day our deli sales are dropping, dropping, dropping because nobody can get through,” he said. “When you call (customer service) they say ‘well, you need to turn off your Wi-Fi calling.’ Okay, click it back on, and eventually it works because it bounces off another tower… for 10 minutes, and then all of a sudden, it’s down again. You can’t keep putting a small Scooby Doo Band-Aid on an artery wound.”
Resident Jim Roberson also expressed concerns with AT&T’s customer service. He said for the last month, he had struggled to get an AT&T technician to visit his house to help him get the internet service for which he paid.
John said the sheriff’s office and 911 dispatching center also struggle with both phone service and high-speed internet connection.
“When we have to post on social media that our admin lines at the 911 center are down, or the admin lines at the sheriff’s office are down, and we’re having to do it more than just once or twice a year… we have to do it sometimes once or twice a month… the community starts losing faith in your first responder community,” he said. “Then when the first responder community starts asking for assistance with tax issues to improve those infrastructures, they don’t trust you with that kind of money.”
The poor bandwidth in the area slows down software and makes the use of VPNs and web portals more difficult.
“We’re partnered up with Phelps County,” John said. “We have to connect through a portal through a VPN. When our internet is having an off day, getting readbacks for our deputies and our police officers at a roadside puts them at risk because they’re standing roadside much longer than they should to wait and find out who they’re dealing with. It’s more than just inconvenient. It puts the community at risk sometimes.”
Roberson recalled seeing a picture of Sheriff Chris Heitman standing in the back of a pickup truck and trying to get cell phone service.
“I took that picture,” John said. “We were on a death scene. We were trying to call the coroner. Sheriff Heitman climbed up on top of his pickup truck and was holding his phone as high as he could get it to try and get a signal.”
Van Hise said one way to improve range is through AT&T and FirstNet’s service MegaRange. It magnifies signals and improves calling capabilities.
“All this new equipment is nice, but it keeps increasing our cost of operating,” John said.
Osage County 911 Director Ron Hoffman attended the meeting. He said that it seemed like even with all of the problems described in Maries County, he thought Osage County struggled more with connectivity.
“We lose dropped calls to FirstNet,” he said. “We lose signal to the 911 center, so no one can call 911.”
Resident Shelby Combs lives near the school campus in Vienna. She said she struggles to get any cell phone service in her home.
“The school is a horrible spot for service right now,” John said.
Because of the poor cell phone service at the Maries R-1 campus, John said the sheriff’s office and school establish radio communication to ensure that the office can promptly respond to any emergency on campus. The sheriff’s office is also programming the frequencies of Maries R-2’s new radios into its vehicles and 911 center.
Van Hise asked if the internet on the Maries R-1 campus performed well.
Kampeter, who works as a coach with the district, said the Wi-Fi runs slowly when he connects to it. John said his FirstNet-enabled phone rarely works on campus.
“That’s a big problem,” Van Hise said.
Combs works for the Missouri Department of Mental Health in the Division of Developmental Disabilities. She said when she does work at home, she has to log back into the VPN every few minutes because of the poor connection. She mentioned recent changes in how the state assesses eligibility for services require families to have access to a computer and internet connection to receive service. Slow internet speeds in the area prevent some people from accessing the state eligibility assessment. To take the test in person, they must travel to one of the offices, which can be more than two hours away from some parts of the state.
John said digital access to mental health services is important for first responders when they need to help someone in a mental health crisis. The Maries County Jail has an iPad available to access mental health services through Compass Health. Internet connection and cell phone reception are important to helping connect people in crisis with professionals through applications such as FaceTime.
Butler asked if AT&T had any plans to bring fiber optic internet lines to Vienna and how customers in the area could push the company to bring fiber optic internet to the area. Fiber optic internet is faster than wireless connection and experiences fewer issues with weather interference.
Ketterer said that another company is putting fiber optic cables along Highway 63, but he did not believe the company was working with AT&T. He said he would deliver the message that people in the area want fiber optic connections to the proper people at AT&T.
Kampeter said he thought getting political attention to the issue could help people in the area get better phone and internet service.
“We need a major politician to really get pissed off,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, something will get done.”
Ketterer said a lot of money had come through Missouri to fund rural broadband expansion, and he expected more in the future.
John said he had seen broadband expansion grants available that could serve the area.
Ketterer suggested government entities should work with the Meramec Regional Planning Commission to explore grant options. He said grants could help the area regardless of if they funded a project with AT&T or another service provider.
A project that Ketterer mentioned to the group was in Tuscumbia. Miller County built its own tower and brought in service providers to use the tower. John told Maries County Presiding Commissioner Victor Stratman that he thought Maries County should reach out to Miller County to ask about the project.
Van Hise and Ketterer do not work in the residential sector, so they were unable to provide solutions to the concerns of residents who attended the meeting. However, they did listen to the issues and said they would pass the message along to the proper people at AT&T who could help find solutions.
Attendees of the meeting filled out a contact sheet. The following day, Van Hise sent out an email to offer everyone an open line of communication.
“Your concerns have been heard and we will work diligently to ensure your experience is improved,” she wrote. “If I am not the contact for your specific need it will be my pleasure to help connect you to the right one. Together we will make a difference.”
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