Last summer, the residents of Skagway were plagued by poor cell phone reception throughout most of the tourism season.
Calls were frequently dropped, text messages couldn’t be sent or received, voice mails couldn’t be accessed and data crawled at a glacial pace on days when 10,000 visitors flooded in to town from the cruise ships.
Customers with AT&T felt most of the frustration over the poor cell reception in town, which was exacerbated when a cruise ship at the Ore Dock blocked the provider’s microwave dish on First Avenue and completely knocked out reception in town on two separate occasions.
The uproar over those incidents prompted AT&T to announce last October that they would upgrade the network in Skagway. The provider would install a 4G LTE network by May 2016, in time for the start of the next tourism season, to be able to better accommodation for the influx of people in town.
However, as the summer began, no such improvement had been made. With more than half of the current tourism season almost over, AT&T customers can expect a longer wait for improved service while continuing to face problems with using their phones on a daily basis.
“I drop calls all of the time during the day,” said Skagway resident and AT&T customer Andrew Cremata. “Fortunately, I only need my cell phone for business and important phone calls, so that’s cool. There’s nothing important going on anyways. We live in Alaska in the middle of nowhere, nobody needs to care about our needs.”
Chris Brown, Director of Network Services for AT&T in Alaska, said the plans to update the network are taking longer than the company would have hoped, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to happen.
But they probably won’t happen in time to make a difference this summer.
“The plan that we’ve had going back a couple years actually was to increase the capacity of our wireless service and to upgrade it to 4G LTE, and that requires some infrastructure changes and some of those are in process, but not all of them are complete,” Brown said.
Brown said the company hopes to install more channels that would be available to allow for more simultaneous conversation in town and increase the flow for faster data service.
How those upgrades would physically manifest, Brown said he was not sure.
“There are a number of options available, but some of the engineering work is not yet completed so I don’t know how it will pan out,” Brown said.
Brown said AT&T has already begun working on the upgrades, but he does not have an estimated time frame for its completion due to the delays that prevented the upgrades from being completed by the start of the summer.
“We like to think often times that we can do them quicker than regulatory requirements will allow us to,” he said.
The coordination of these requirements and ensuring proper permitting with the appropriate government agencies are a few of the causes for for the delay to improvements, according to Brown.
“The [Federal Communications Commission] and the [Federal Aviation Administration] are two organizations that have very stringent requirements on the installation of any tower to begin with,” Brown said.
And since the tower is close to the U.S. – Canadian border, AT&T has to make sure they adhere to Canadian regulations as well as those from the U.S. government.
“The licensing modification requires coordination with industry in Canada, and that’s a process over which we have no control, of course, and one which can be, as in this case, can be fairly lengthy,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual about that, it just takes a long time.”
Network upgrades such as the one needed in Skagway to provide enough coverage for the amount of people in town during the summer, can be a costly and time intensive process, Brown said.
“If we have to build a new tower, that becomes a fairly expensive proposition because we have to buy or lease land to do that one. The additional electronics to add [more capacity] is not insignificant, especially with the newer technologies,” he said. “And then third piece is that when you have that capacity, you have to get it back to the rest of the network, so there’s the cost of either building, buying, or leasing capacity back to the rest of the network.
After repeated attempts to contact AT&T over his frustration with the poor service in Skagway seemingly to no avail, customer Cremata said he doesn’t buy the promise of network upgrades.
“To me, saying ‘upgrades to the tower’ just means checks in the mail,” Cremata said.
Cremata has been an AT&T customer for years, and remembers a time when the network was the most reliable in town.
“AT&T worked fine three years ago. That’s the real question. Why did it work fine three years ago, and why did it suddenly two years ago stop working? There’s not a bunch of extra people living in Skagway,” he said.
And when he posed that very question to a customer service representative, Cremata said they replied that the tower had experienced serious degradation over the winter.
“In one winter? Did you have a bunch of squirrels make nests in it? Did hamsters get inside of the computer servers? What happened? Why did it degrade so quickly?” Cremata said.
AT&T’s Alaska Director of Network Services Brown said he had no knowledge of an accident or any damage to the tower.
“I have not heard that,” Brown said. “There must have been some miscommunication in that message.”
Cremata has been an outspoken critic of AT&T’s poor reception in town ever since the service declined in quality, and this summer he decided to go public with his complaints on AT&T’s Facebook page.
“I thought the most worthwhile thing to do was to make it as public as possible, and that’s what I did with going on their Facebook page,” he said.
Numerous local customers joined Cremata on the network’s page to express their dissatisfaction with their service. The feed garnered almost 70 comments.
Yet, just as with his previous experiences with AT&T customer service, Cremata said he felt like he was given the run-around by their social media customer service representatives, which he believes to be an intentional diversionary tactic.
“They make it as frustrating and tedious as possible, because in my opinion, that’s the best way to get rid of somebody,” he said. “It’s as if they say ‘We’re going to make this frustrating and tedious for you, we’re not going to ever remember you have problems, and eventually you’re going to stop calling and that’s what we want because we’re not going to help you and we’re not going to make any upgrades to the tower’.”
Whenever someone commented on the Facebook post with their complaints about the service, someone who identified themselves as a social media specialist for AT&T would offer an apology and ask the commenter to direct messages AT&T for further assistance.
Cremata said he sent AT&T numerous direct messages, but never received a response to a single one of them. Many other Skagway customers who commented on AT&T’s page experienced similar unresponsiveness.
AT&T’s Alaska Director of Network Services Brown said that was an anomaly and should not reflect on the company’s customer service procedures.
“Our customer care folks do monitor our social media because it is a valuable and often times a much more candid way to communicate with customers, and if someone did not receive a response directly indicated to the message, that’s certainly not the desire,” Brown said. “This is a significantly sizeable group whose responsibility is to do that. That’s not the norm, and I would encourage them to follow up on the telephone to have that looked into.”
Cremata also expressed his frustration in the asymmetry from the responses AT&T customer service would offer to Skagway residents over the phone.
“We all know each other in Skagway. We know one person gets $60 knocked off their bill, another person gets $20 knocked off their bill, and a lot of people they just tell you that you’re SOL because your contract doesn’t actually include things like cell service, so basically you’re just giving them money and they’re able to use whatever excuse they want,” he said.
Brown said that he could not comment on this scenario because he did not personally know of any instances of this disparity occurring.
Cremata said his Facebook exchange with AT&T customer service was likely his last.
“My contract is up, and that’s ultimately why I’m not pursuing it any further. I’m done with them,” he said. “I’m just going to go to Verizon and get a new set-up. The bummer is that I’ll probably have to get a new phone number, probably have to get a new contract with a new phone.”
Despite the delays to upgrades, Brown said that he hopes Skagway’s AT&T customers bear with the company while they make their way through the process to getting the 4G LTE network up and running.
“We certainly value everyone’s being a customer in that part of the state, as everywhere, and we certainly also value the input we get, whether it’s favorable or whatever question you need us to take action on,” Brown said. “We are working on a number of projects in Southeast Alaska to continually improve the quantity and the quality of the service there.”