Montana Jones

Montana n: A state of the northwest United States bordering on Canada. Admitted as the 41st state in 1889. The fourth largest state in the union, it includes vast prairies and numerous majestic mountain ranges.
Syn: Treasure State, Big Sky Country, Last Best Place.

Jones n: slang. An addiction or very deep craving.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Telephones

Me:
I have this old Motorola bag phone I would like to activate.
Phone Store Lady:
Well, I don't think, uh...
Me:
Now you are going to tell me that you can't do it because of the upcoming FCC E-911 law that only allows digital phones on the network.
PSL:
Right.
Me:
But then I tell you that the law does not go into effect until 2008 so there is nothing illegal about activating this phone right now.
PSL:
But we still can't do it.
Me:
Well let me explain the problem I am trying to solve. I work in some remote wilderness areas and I need to communicate with the people there daily. Digital phones simply do not work out there but these old analog phones work great.
PSL:
Have you tried using an antenna or a booster.
Me:
Yes, I fought with a phone all last summer that had a directional antenna and a three watt booster. It simply would not work at all unless you forced it into analog mode. Then it would work fine.
PSL:
Well our regulations say that only phones that have the E-911 service, which is only digital, can be allowed on our network. It's for safety reasons.
Me:
Well I need a way to communicate out to the field for safety reasons. The E-911 phones don't work. Besides, I will never ever call 911 from this phone anyway. If there is an emergency out there my staff has a different call center they are trained to use.
PSL:
We still can't activate your phone.
Me:
I know you are just a clerk, is there someone higher up in the company that I can petition for a special dispensation?
PSL:
No.
Me:
We have a second one of these bag phones working on your network right now. Can we use that account and add another number?
PSL:
No. We can't activate non digital phones.
Me:
It is not against the law, you are already servicing non digital phones, analog phones are absolutely required for emergency communication, life and death sort of things, and you won't provide service?
PSL:
No.
Me:
And you won't let me talk to a supervisor or give me an address to write to for a special dispensation?
PSL:
No.
Me:
You are a phone company right? You do sell services for talking on the telephone?
PSL:
Yes.
Me:
Can you sell me two tin cans and about twelve miles of string?
PSL:
No.

For the record, I have had this conversation with both Verizon and Alltell (formerly Cellular One). Both companies refuse to acknowledge the need for analog signals. Both companies refuse my requests to speak to higher authorities or ask for a dispensation for special circumstances. Both companies fail to show interest in providing communication services, even emergency services, that don't fit their neat little 'sell a bunch of phones' business model. They care more about making money than serving the public.

My situation is not unique, there are a great many Montanans that work in remote areas in the mountains and out on ranches where newfangled cell phone technology does not work as well as phones that are 10 years old. The congress has passed a nationwide law that requires cell phones to locate themselves when calling 911. This is good for the phone companies because everyone using cell phones must buy new ones that comply. However no exceptions are available to those of us who are cut off because of the change. A little ironic that a law promoting safety leaves some of us less safe. A little ironic that in this day of instant global communications rural America is getting more cut off.

I am tempted to make a political rant about this and complain that rural Montanans are being alienated by laws that serve urban areas. It would be interesting to look up voting records and campaign contributions for our representatives to see who is in the phone companies pockets and serving big business at the expense of their constituents. The problem with this is that the E-911 laws are quite popular and actually useful to a great many Americans. I am clearly in the minority in being harmed by it. Also the ranting will do absolutely nothing to solve my problem of communicating in the wilderness. I will leave the politicizing as an exercise for the reader.

Alternatives

I have researched satellite phones. They are very popular with world travelers, adventurers, mountain climbers and so on. The service they provide is excellent with crystal clear phone calls practically anywhere on the planet. They are blessed expensive. The phones themselves cost anywhere from $400 to $2000 dollars. Rentals are available for $100-$300 per month. It is the air time that is the killer. A satellite phone bill would be close to $1000 a month for me. Is it any wonder that I am trying so hard to get good old fashioned cell phone service.

An internet connection would also make a good substitute. A lot of what I use the phone for could be passed in an Email. Emergency calls could use VOIP.

There is an upcoming wireless protocol called WiMax. It is being developed for blanketing many square miles of city space with wireless internet. The sort of thing that makes my inner geek very happy. It supposedly has a range of 20 miles with limitations. Turns out that the limitations are mountains. Without line of sight the practical range is about 4-5 miles. And that 20 mile limit, well that is just on paper. In the real world no one has come close to that. To their credit a tech evangelist for a WiMax company did take the time to answer my Emails. That puts them one step above everyone else I have asked for help with my problem. Unfortunately I am beyond the current range of their technology and the $10,000 price tag for a WiMax base station is a little off putting too.

I have scratched the surface with companies that provide satellite internet. For the most part they tend toward servicing places with roads and electricity. They use those 24 inch dishes that also get television signals and have to be installed by a certified installer dude. No one wants to tell me anything about power requirements, temporary installation infrastructure or what it would cost me to have the certified installer dude transported out into the wilderness for a service call. As far as I can tell these companies are a lot like the phone companies. They don't care about people, only wallets.

I have heard of other options as well. Modems using the same satellites and antennas the sat-phones use. Still expensive and strangely enough service is not available in North America. Does it count as ironic that the heart of Africa can get better communication than parts of the most technologically advanced country in the world?

I don't like to go backwards but the technology of the 70's might save me. Can anyone point me toward info on ham radio?

Why is it that everyone thinks I am joking when I start to inquire about tin cans and twelve miles of string?

Addendum. April 28

Keith makes a good point in the comments about dual mode phones. In the summer of 2005 I tried working with a dual mode phone connected to a booster and antenna. While in its digital mode it received enough of a signal that it would not revert to analog mode automatically. However the signal was so inferior that the phone could not place or receive calls. The phone could be forced into analog mode (with nine button presses on the keypad) however it would not stay in analog mode for more than 30-60 seconds. Outgoing calls could be placed but it would not stay in analog mode to wait for an incoming call.

Dual mode phones provide me with half of a communications channel, outgoing but not incoming. A barely acceptable workaround. I spent all of last summer in fear of being cut off from my employees in an emergency situation such as the forest fires of 2000 and 2003.

Comments:
I remain proudly cell phone free, although I know it isn't an option in your industry. I say storm the place, or at least draft some legislation, gather some signatures, and get it on the ballot for this fall. If you can't make em behave, make it so they are breaking a law if they don't . . . Sorry MT.
 
Man, this reminds me of a conversation I had with Spr*nt about data coverage in Missoula. It just went out one day. I called and they claimed it never existed for the area. [Reader: Data is crucial to my being able to work here in Missoula for my California company.]

Me: Yes, it did, I was using a data connection just yesterday.

Spr*nt: Sir, according to our records, we don't cover your area.

Me: Yes, you do. I have been downloading data over your network for the past six months.

Spr*nt: Sir, I'm going to close this action item with the resolution that Spr*nt doesn't provide data to your area.

Me: Can I speak with the next level of service, please? I need to find out why I'm not getting data on the phone.

Spr*nt: No, sir. I've resolved this issue, there's no need for further assistance.

Me: Can I speak with a manager? I need an answer as to why I'm not getting data so you can fix it.

Spr*nt: Sir, I gave you an answer.

Me: You gave me an answer, but you didn't give me a good answer or a correct one...

That really p*ssed the guy off. He took it as a personal affront. Hello? He was wrong. I had to go through my company to bug Spr*nt about the data, which they fixed soon after.

I hate major telecommunications companies and would rather use a string and two cans...
 
Best cell service in the park...just outside the grocery store at the east entrance about 10 feet from the front door...and lean to your left a bit if you are looking at the gate :) Did that help. Just trying to make you smile.
 
Jones, I used to have an Audiovox phone which was both digital and analog, and I'm pretty sure was E-911 ready. When the digital signal dropped it would switch to analog, and it worked great. Are there no dual digital/analog phones anymore?
 
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