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Looking for Bars

Let's talk about the cell service on campus, or rather the lack thereof

There’s nothing more frustrating than when you go to use your phone and there are no little bars in the top left corner of the screen. Finding coverage has, for the last twenty years or so, been the biggest challenge of living in an ever-increasing cell phone dependent world. You may even remember those Verizon ads from the early 2000s where a man continually roamed about, shouting “can you hear me now?” into his cell phone.

Students who live on campus have spoken time and time again about the poor cell reception around most parts of the Hilltop. In order to learn more about the topic, both faculty and students were asked their thoughts on this issue.

The Hilltop has beautiful views but flawed service. If you’re looking to make a connection, your best bet is to hike to the top of the hill and make a call near the first floor of Rowe or DR.

Since KUA is located in the small town of Meriden, it is no surprise that cell reception rarely reaches our corner of the state. The limited service we do receive travels over the hill from a tower near Whaleback Mountain, built to serve Interstate 89. The second closest tower sends its signal over yet another mountain, constructed to serve commuters on Interstate 91. For the most part, telephone companies provide signal to larger populations with the understanding that this coverage will lead to more profit. Unfortunately, our neck of the woods, with its small but close knit population, just doesn’t meet that criteria. The little signal that does reach Kimball Union is best received by the company Verizon, with US Cellular and AT&T being slightly less effective.

Many of the dorm proctors who were interviewed felt this unavailability of signal coverage on campus was inhibiting, and at times dangerous. One of the most commonly shared concerns was what would happen in the case of an emergency. With little to no coverage available at most times, it would be almost impossible to get a call out to a faculty member, family, or emergency response teams. Of course, wifi does boost most cell phone signals — and texting apps like WhatsApp and WeChat are available — but they rely on electricity and could be knocked out in a crisis.

A few years ago, one of Kimball Union’s senior classes sought to fix the issue by funding the installation of a signal hotspot in the Student Center, located under the Dining Hall. One of the boys’ dorm proctors suggested more of these hotspots around campus, especially in the dorms. When asked about this possibility, Mr. Bourne, Head of Technology, had a good explanation for the limitations this proposal would encounter.

Making a quick call isn’t as simple as it seems. Most students text using apps like WeChat or WhatsApp.

According to Mr. Bourne, “Anything that’s broadcasted outside of a building falls under FCC regulations… We aren’t permitted, as a school, to broadcast any radio waves in that space outside of buildings.” This means that the broadcast range of these hotspots must be limited to the indoor buildings themselves. Another limitation to the installation of new hot spots is the cost.

The cost of a broadcasting signal to the limited space of one floor in the Student Center cost the school upward of $5,000. If more were to be installed in dorms, each floor would need an individual box installed. This means for the larger dorms, such as the four-floored DR, it would cost almost $20,000 dollars to provide equal signal strength to every student.

The library overlooks the valley and showcases the sprawling hillsides that block most of our reception.

The catch with hotspots or repeaters, devices that take in cell phone signal and spread it back out to a designated area, is they are only able to amplify an already present signal provided in a certain location, not create signal out of thin air. In places such as the bottom of the hill, where signal is non-existent in some locations, this would only result in the amplification of something that does not exist. One girl’s dorm proctor suggested the addition of a tower to Kimball Union campus. As stated before, cellular companies tend to cater to larger populations and will only install a (prohibitively expensive) cell tower if there are enough customers in the area to justify the expense. Unfortunately, they are also the only companies allowed to broadcast these signals.

Kimball Union has met these challenges by taking advantage of the new possibilities of the game-changing invention and application of WiFi calling. Mr. Bourne spoke about this, saying, “The reality is that we are looking at the changes in the ways these devices are able to communicate, and where we don’t have good cellular connection here, we do have good wifi coverage.”

The dead zone: the bottom of the hill is notorious for its lack of service. The building crew had to pipe in wires for the spectator pavilion’s wifi and even Poor Thom’s Tavern offers wifi to allow its patrons to surf the web.

In the past few years, there has been a major increase in the availability of internet access on campus. Every building broadcasts this connection inside, as well as outside their walls. This amplified access, along with the newly popularized Wifi calling installed on most devices, has dramatically increased students’ ability to communicate with the outside world.

But, there is always a catch. Reagan Schaffer, student leader in Frost Dormitory, was able to offer further student insight, saying, “Another concern is not being able to contact your parents in the middle of the night. Wifi shuts off.. And if a family emergency happened and your parents called you, you don’t even get the calls coming in.. the texts don’t come in, you can’t see what’s going on until five o’clock the next morning”.

She offered a possible solution by suggesting that ”something with the wifi should be changed so that you can still reach facetime audio and imessenger, because that would at least get you to a faculty member.”

Opening up messaging on the wifi all night would, of course, come with its own set of challenges. Students might inevitably see the new lack of limitations as an opportunity to stay up late chatting with friends, and this could cut into their sleep time, ultimately affecting their academic performance.

Perhaps one day a company will be interested in installing a tower on campus, but in reality, only time will tell how the issue will be solved. As technology becomes more and more advanced, we are able to offer solutions to problems that were once thought to be impossible to solve.

 

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