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SW ND cellphone reception to get boost from towers

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath Several dozen new cell towers, like the one shown here in Scranton on Thursday, are in the works at different locations around western North Dakota, according to representatives of an Atlanta-based communications company.

Cellphone reception, one of the larger sticking points for both natives and newcomers living in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch region, is soon scheduled to see a bump in quality.

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On the heels of news that a new communications tower is set to go up in the city of Rhame next year — which should offer cellular customers in that area much-improved coverage — an Atlanta-based company has plans for several dozen new towers in North Dakota, many of which will be stationed on the bustling western side of the state.

“We’re looking at more than 40 sites right now,” said Municipal Communications vice president John Throckmorton. “The majority of those sites are in western North Dakota, but there are also a handful on the eastern part of the state. It’s a little too soon to tell right now, but we expect our list could grow as time goes on.”

Rhame auditor Margie Russ last month called the cell reception in and around the small Bowman County town nearly “nonexistent” and said the idea for a new tower was brought up at a city council meeting in 2012. Working in conjunction with a company named Terracon, out of Colorado, and communications giant AT&T, Municipal Communications hopes to have the Rhame tower up and running in 2014.

“We’re still early in the process, but we are planning to build a new cell site in Rhame that would provide improved wireless coverage to the town and surrounding area,” AT&T spokesman Tom Hopkins stated in an email to The Press. “We’re in the midst of acquiring the site now and hope to complete that phase by summer and have the site built by the end of next year.”

Throckmorton said his company — which mainly works with AT&T — currently is moving forward with plans for new towers in 12 North Dakota counties, including Stark, Dunn, Slope, Mountrail, Billings, Mercer and Oliver, among others.

“AT&T has plans to build well over 1,000 towers nationwide this year, next year and for the foreseeable future,” said Municipal Communications CEO Peter Corry. “Right now, I think they’re focusing on areas that have been kind of bypassed, for whatever reason. They’re making up for not providing coverage, particularly in areas that are experiences a lot of growth like parts of North Dakota.”

Corry said most of the towers going up in North Dakota will be in areas where there is typically little, if any, coverage.

“These will be bringing not only coverage, but 4G LTE service to the areas that already do have coverage,” Corry said. “These towers will allow a consistent upgrade of technology going forward. The exciting thing for the people in (western North Dakota) is that they’ll have the latest, greatest technology right out of the gate.

“They may have had to wait a long time to get coverage, but now what they’ll get will be better than what people are getting in New York City. There will be the ability to have lightning-quick data speeds.”

The Dickinson Park Board is currently in negotiations to allow a cell tower near the West River Community Center in Dickinson, which would likely improve service in that pocket of the city.

In Manning, Dunn County emergency manager Denise Brew said she would welcome enhanced cellular coverage for the safety aspects alone.

“There are so many people coming into Dunn County these days that don’t have a land line anymore,” Brew said. “They’re relying on cellphones for communication and a lot of those people don’t have cellphone coverage where they live. Should an emergency occur, that’s a problem. I know people who talk about jumping in a car and driving to the top of a hill to dial 911.”

In addition to cell towers, Brew said more state radio towers are also in the works in different areas of North Dakota. Because of the unique geography of certain areas of Dunn County — including the Badlands and the Killdeer Mountains — Brew said she didn’t think the lack of coverage would likely be remedied everywhere in the county.

“Any enhancement would be welcomed,” Brew said. “I don’t think people always think in terms of cell reception being a safety concern. In my office, if somebody moves into Dunn County and doesn’t register a land line, we probably won’t know where they live. I totally support any cell towers we can get and look forward to them coming in. It can only help us.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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