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Delays plague cell service improvements

Mary Kate Malone | Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The University’s initiative to improve cellular telephone service on campus hit a roadblock this summer, delaying the project’s completion date and forcing cell phone users to rely on temporary mobile transmitters for service.

The cellular antenna system project was supposed to be completed by the start of the school year, but that was before officials learned they had to get state approval to add antennas to older buildings on campus, said Dewitt Latimer, chief technology officer in the Office of Information Technologies.

“Any modification to a building [more than 45 years old] done by a cell phone carrier … must go through an approval process with the state historical preservation office,” Latimer said, recalling the information his office learned after they finalized the locations for the antennas. “It caught us all off-guard.”

Latimer said all antenna sites but one have now been approved and work on them has resumed. But the approval process set the antenna project back about six weeks, Latimer said.

The University announced last spring that it had entered into agreements with Cingular and Verizon to boost cell phone service on campus. Sixteen “stealth” antennas are being placed around campus to achieve “five bar” coverage anywhere outdoors, Latimer said. The antennas are two-and-a-half feet tall and about 18 inches wide, and are on light poles, building facades and rooftops on campus.

Only Verizon and Cingular customers will benefit from the new antennas. Cingular customers can count on better coverage by the beginning of October, but Latimer couldn’t say when Verizon’s work will be completed. Ideally, it will be finished sometime this fall.

In the interim, Cingular and Verizon have constructed temporary mobile transmitters to make up for the delayed activation of the stealth antennas. Cingular has three transmitters on campus (at South Dining Hall, McKenna Hall and Stepan Center) and Verizon has one (at Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore).

The closer you are to these mobile transmitters, the better reception you’ll get, Latimer said.

“I know students have a very vested interest in this,” Latimer said. “I’ll be sending out an update as soon as we progress through the project to let the student body know how we’re doing.”

OIT officials walked through more than 40 buildings on campus to select the optimal locations for the stealth antennas, which will boost coverage without affecting “the aesthetic value of the University,” Latimer said.

Verizon already has a tower on Warren Golf Course, so the company will only be using six of the 16 stealth antennas.

Cingular and Verizon are bearing the entire expense of the project, Latimer said, even though the University has been working closely with the companies all summer. Latimer called the agreement between the University and the cell phone companies “cutting-edge.”

“We think more and more universities will embrace wireless as part of their infrastructure,” Latimer said.

But the project won’t improve cell phone service for students who don’t use Cingular or Verizon.

Latimer said he has been fielding complaints from these students.

“We are willing to work with any of the carriers, but each of them have to go through their own internal approval process to make sure the investment is worth their while,” Latimer said, adding that students should direct their complaints to their cell phone companies.

“It’s the carrier’s responsibility,” he said