Cell phone service on Longboat Key has not been great over the years, so the town is working to partner with tech companies to make it better.
“Can you hear me now?”
It’s a phrase Longboat Key residents might not have to utter in coming years as the town prepares to install new cellular technology to improve wireless signals on the island.
The town, as part of its project to put all overhead wires underground, has requested proposals from private or public suppliers to install a new form of cellular technology on the island. But exactly what that will look like is unclear.
That’s because the town has asked not what it can do for cellular companies on the island but rather what cellular companies can do for Longboat Key.
The town plans to install its own fiber optic network along the entirety of the island — infrastructure that Longboat wants to offer as an opportunity to partner with another entity to improve cellular service on the island.
In its request for proposals, the town targets streetlights as the key to a possible solution. It is asking for technology that provides the town with a “next-generation street lighting system” that could support small-cell service.
Small cells use multiple nodes that would tie into the town’s fiber optic network to provide cellular coverage as opposed to a taller cell tower that provides a signal for one large area.
There are two cell towers that service Longboat Key: one on City Island near Mote Marine Laboratory and another in West Bradenton on Cortez Road.
There have been proposals to put new towers on Longboat Key — most recently in 2013 — but each time the town tried to approve an installation it was met with opposition from residents, said former town Commissioner Lynn Larson.
“Cell service has never been good,” Larson said. “It’s a matter of life safety.”
That life safety platform, as far as cell service goes, is one on which Larson said she ran when she campaigned in 2010 for a seat she held on the Town Commission. Larson said her concern was that if someone fell in the middle of the night that they wouldn’t be able to call for help.
There was one instance Larson remembered when a bicyclist was hit and the person who called for help had to drive away from the scene to get better service.
“So many people now do not have land lines, they only have cell service,” Larson said. “It’s very important that we be able to accommodate that.”
But for Rusty Chinnis, there isn’t much of a problem. While he said he sometimes loses coverage in the back of his home, the service he has now is much better than it was in the past. He wouldn’t spend money to improve the cell infrastructure.
“I’m fine with 4G, but I’m not as tech oriented as I was,” Chinnis said.
David DeFratus, who lives in Sleepy Lagoon, said that his cell service was poor until he got a femtocell — a small, low-power cellular base station that connects to his cable. The femtocell boosts his cellular signal to the point that he no longer has to stand in one place when making calls.
And for Ronald Krum, who lives in Country Club Shores, cell service is no better, and no worse, than it was 10 years ago. While he had to change providers to get better reception at his home, Krum said that with Verizon he has no problems at all.
“With the T-Mobile, about 75% of the time I had to go outside on my driveway to get service,” Krum said.
And of all the major cellular providers on Longboat Key, T-Mobile has the worst call performance, according to RootMetrics, a independent cellular service monitor.
Dave Brenner said his cell service is “fair,” although it used to be worse. He said the poor service is more of an annoyance. Sometimes he has to call a friend five times before he can get a connection, Brenner said.
But Brenner said he is hoping service improves with the project.
“Hopefully it’ll be just no big deal picking up the phone and calling somebody, but we’ll see,” Brenner said.