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How do local cell phone companies compare?

NATCHEZ — Whether it’s to gripe or brag, cell phone service is a topic that tends to get people talking, unless they’re in a dead spot.

And with many switching to smart phones in recent years — sometimes using their cell phones for tasks previously reserved for a computer — the quality of the connections to an iPhone, Android, Blackberry or a number of other devices has become even more critical to resident’s daily routines.

A test conducted by the staff of The Democrat put cell service providers to the test, and some clear results prevailed.

The results reflect the number of service bars displayed on three cell phones using the three main service providers in the area — AT&T, Verizon and C Spire.

If this were the Olympics, C Spire would win the gold, Verizon would take the silver and AT&T would go home with the bronze.

The number of bars was recorded in various spots around Adams County and Concordia Parish, including the Vidalia Walmart parking lot, the intersection of Main and Commerce streets, the Kingston Volunteer Fire Station, the city limits sign near Trinity Episcopal Day School, the intersection of Liberty and Dunbarton roads and the Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Station.

Sue Sperry, the AT&T public relations manager for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, said there’s two components — coverage and capacity — that affect the quality of cell phone signals and contribute to dropped calls.

Coverage depends on the location of the call in relation to cell phone towers.

“Natchez is a little bit unique (when it comes to coverage),” Sperry said.

Because Natchez contains a historic district and a variety of different terrains, installing a tower — whether it’s on public or private land — can be complicated.

The provider companies must go through the Federal Communication Commission and get approval from organizations like the Natchez Preservation Commission.

“If you want to build a tower or system to increase coverage, you can’t always do it,” Sperry said.

Silvia Bunch, the receptionist at the Adams County Road Department, is familiar with the ins and outs of Adams County and cell coverage areas because of her constant contact with road department employees scouring the county for downed limbs and road maintenance.

In addition to distance from cell phone towers, Bunch said road department employees find that foliage and terrain affect their call quality.

And while C Spire, which the road foreman use, offers decent service “way out in the county,” there are a few dead spots.

“When you go to Jackson Point, it doesn’t matter who the carrier is — (cell phones) don’t have coverage,” she said. Anna’s Bottom is another with a bad track record of cell service, Bunch said.

“It’s just going to vary in areas (depending on) which terrain you’re in,” Bunch said.

Spring and summer foliage can even affect service, she said.

Sperry said the other aspect that affects the clarity of a phone call is capacity, which refers to the amount of traffic the coverage area can handle.

“A cell tower by its nature is designed to handle certain amount of traffic at any given time,” Sperry said.

For example, cell phone users may have noticed that when crossing the Mississippi River Bridge while talking on a cell phone — an activity law enforcement and mothers might not condone — sometimes their phone calls get dropped, and other times the conversation survives the state line.

Sperry said there are a few AT&T antennas on the bridge, but they can only handle a certain amount of traffic.

“If it’s bumper-to-bumper (car traffic) and everybody is calling home saying ‘I’ll be late,’” there’s too much (cell phone) traffic,” Sperry said.

Thus, the call will drop or words will get scrabbled because too many cell phones are competing for a connection.

Additionally, smart phone tools take up more capacity. If a cell phone user streams a live video in high definition, it requires more bandwidth than talking or texting, Sperry said.

Until last year, AT&T was the only provider to offer iPhones, which could suggest AT&T customers use more bandwidth on their smartphones than other providers’ customers, she said.

“We’ve sold over 9 million iPhones in our company,” Sperry said.

On all cell phones, in areas with one or two bars, call quality suffers, because callers are too far from a tower or there is congestion on the tower, Sperry said. Three bars or more indicates full service, she said.

District 2 Supervisor David Carter, who lives on Kingston Road near Hutchins Landing Road, said he switched from AT&T to Verizon approximately a year ago because of service problems.

While he said he misses the customer service AT&T provided, he now gets Internet access on his phone with Verizon.

His county-paid cell phone uses C Spire, which also works well in the Kingston area, Carter said.

“The best overall phone coverage seems to be C Spire, Verizon is a close second and AT&T is a distant third,” Carter said.

But no provider can make it down the length of Kingston Road, Carter said.

District 3 Supervisor Calvin Butler said he’s had minor problems with AT&T service, but it’s not enough to make the switch.

Tate Road, near the Jefferson-Adams county line tends to give him problems, as well as some other areas. But his service works crystal clear inside his house in a rural area off of Steam Plant Road.

A few recent updates by AT&T in the Miss-Lou include a new cell tower built at the intersection of U.S. 61 and the Natchez Trace Parkway, and a new mobile broadband capability to cell towers in Vidalia, Ridgecrest and Ferriday. The company is currently working to provide 4G service to Adams County customers.

Sperry said while AT&T has specific plans for upgrades, when those are completed, the improvments won’t stop.

“There’s always investments to be made,” Sperry said. “The industry keeps changing.”

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