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Cell phone reception still shaky

John Tierney | Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Instead of calling friends and family to proclaim the news of a big win over Penn State, many Irish fans found themselves asking, “Can you hear me now?” when using their cell phones on campus Saturday.

The campus cell phone antenna system may be powerful enough to handle 12,000 students, but it is too weak to support 80,000 football fans – something Notre Dame students and guests will have to deal with during the season’s six remaining home games.

“It is difficult to build a system for a one-time phenomenon, or in this case, a seven-time phenomenon,” said Dewitt Latimer, chief technology officer in the Office of Information Technologies.

Latimer said cell phone carriers are capable of building a system powerful enough to handle the seven football Saturdays, but it would provide “over-coverage” for the other 358 days of the year.

Verizon customer and freshman Nick LaSpina said he was not satisfied with campus cell phone service.

“My phone didn’t work this weekend,” he said. “I got zero bars, and it’s not much better during the week.”

Cingular’s cell phone coverage improved at midnight last Friday, as the network went live with the initiation of its new stealth antennas on campus.

Cingular worked around the clock for three days leading up to Friday to ensure that the antennas would be working in time for football Saturday, Latimer said – beating his original estimation of an October completion.

To maximize coverage, Cingular positioned its new antennas at sites around campus, including DeBartolo Hall, Legends, Carroll Hall, Lewis Hall, the Hesburgh Library, the Joyce Center, the Bookstore and within the vicinity of Notre Dame Stadium. These antennas are exclusively used by customers on the Cingular network and were constructed and funded entirely by Cingular, Latimer said.

Cingular customers reported that their service has improved since the antennas were activated and are pleased with the expanded coverage, Latimer said. He expects that the customers will especially notice the improvements this week without the extra on-campus use generated by football fans.

While Latimer said “Cingular has executed better than Verizon” in constructing the antennas, he also credits Verizon for at least “making the commitment to improve coverage.”

Even before the completion of the new antennas, Verizon’s coverage on campus beats that of other carriers, such as T-Mobile and Sprint, because of the temporary antenna behind the Bookstore, Latimer said.

Senior Tony Crafa said he has seen a notable improvement in Verizon’s service.

“In the past, I’d have to go outside to make a call,” he said. “Now I can call from my room. It’s choppy, but it works.”

There is still no firm timetable for the completion of the Verizon antenna system, Latimer said. He estimated completion between Oct. 7 and Oct. 21 – the two-week span between the Stanford and UCLA home football games. However, Verizon told the University there is a possibility that the towers may not be completed until after football season, Latimer said.

Latimer said the University is not responsible for poor reception, since only the cell phone providers can increase their signal strength.

“The carriers must hear from their customers,” he said. “They will only change something if they fear they will lose business.”