Building up 4G cellphone networks

The two biggest cellphone providers in the Adirondacks say they’re working to bring the fastest available service into the area, but they still have some work to do.

Verizon Wireless says it turned on dozens of 4G LTE sites in the North Country this summer, giving cellphone and tablet users higher-speed Internet access than they’ve had under the carrier’s slower 3G network. This gives the Lake Placid and Tuppper Lake area strong coverage, but the company says it still has some gaps to fill with 4G LTE, including in the Saranac Lake area.

Meanwhile, the closest AT&T’s 4G LTE network has reached into this area is in Watertown and parts of St. Lawrence County. The carrier does provide a 4G service, without LTE, around Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and other parts of the Adirondacks – not Tupper Lake, though – but it’s not as fast as 4G LTE, which is the target that much of the wireless industry is moving toward.

Why 4G LTE?

Why is 4G LTE the gold standard? It’s all about faster network speeds, according to John O’Malley, Verizon Wireless’ Rochester-based spokesman.

“What that means is being able to get online with your 4G LTE smartphone or tablet or a modem for your computer, being able to get online and connect to the Internet at speeds between 5 and 12 megabits per second on the download, similar to what you would get if you were plugged into a broadband connection at home or at work, but it’s a mobile environment,” O’Malley said. “It’s just a much more powerful and robust Internet experience on your device.”

“LTE is 10 times faster than 3G,” said Ellen Webner, a New Jersey-based spokeswoman for AT&T. “What you’re carrying around with smartphones these days is really a laptop (computer) because you can get on the Internet, you can post on Facebook and Twitter, change your calendar and look at a presentation, so the speed thing is definitely very important.”

Verizon rollout

Verizon started rolling out its 4G LTE service across the U.S. in 2010. Here in the North Country, O’Malley says his company has worked over the past year to upgrade its existing 3G sites, including antennas on cellphone towers, buildings and other tall structures, to 4G LTE.

“We actually began lighting up sites over the summer,” O’Malley told the Enterprise Monday. “We currently have more than 80 sites on the air throughout the Adirondack area, and by that I mean from Watertown all the way up through Plattsburgh, including Lake Placid. We’ve got a number of sites on throughout the area with more to come.”

O’Malley said he expects the company’s remaining sites in the North Country will be outfitted with 4G LTE next year.

Saranac Lake

Verizon’s coverage map shows it currently has 4G LTE service in Tupper Lake, Lake Placid, Keene, Bloomingdale and Vermontville, but not in Saranac Lake. Some local residents have been wondering when it will come.

“I’ll be out and about and see that little ‘LTE’ indicator go on in some fairly rural places, and it’s kind of a letdown when it flickers off as I approach Saranac Lake,” village resident Ken Aaron said in an email. “It just seems like the village would be in line to be upgraded already; it would be a nice convenience.”

Wayne Feinberg, a local real estate broker who lives in Saranac Lake, said he wants to upgrade his Blackberry to an iPhone or an Android phone, “but in Saranac Lake, (Verizon) does not have 4G (LTE) service yet, so you can’t take advantage of all the new advancements the new phones are capable of doing.”

O’Malley said Verizon Wireless has two sites in the Saranac Lake area it’s working to upgrade, including one on Mount Pisgah, but he didn’t have a “target activation date” yet. He said every site has its own timeline.

“Anytime you make a major change to a cell site, whether it’s a tower or equipment on a rooftop, you’ve got to renegotiate the lease with your landlord and go through the normal local zoning approval processes,” O’Malley said. “And of course up in that area, you’ve got to go through the (state Adirondack Park Agency) for approval. Then you start doing the work. You have to run fiber to every site, and add new radios, antennas, software and all kinds of things. One site in the town might go through that process fairly quickly, for whatever reason, and the other one might take a little longer. That’s why there’s no pattern to the rollout.”

AT&T moves in

Webner said her company’s goal has been to get 3G service into an area, update that to 4G, then add LTE technology. She said the strategy helps to enhance cell coverage, in addition to Internet speed and capacity.

“A lot of it is still voice traffic,” she said. “That’s very important to have coverage because they are still phones we’re carrying around.”

AT&T’s coverage map of this area shows it has 4G service in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, but some areas don’t even have 3G, including Tupper Lake.

“Tupper Lake is going to be on any day now with 3G service and then very quickly 4G service,” Webner said.

So far, AT&T’s 4G LTE network has only reached the western part of the North Country. Webner didn’t give a timeline for when it could get into the Tri-Lakes area.

“Right now we’re building out towards that,” she said. “We launched LTE in Watertown last March, and we’re continuing to build out in that area.

“In the next year or so, all the carriers will be up to LTE, so the network technology is going to be pretty much the same across the board, but there are still going to be pockets of the country that may not have LTE as quick as other areas.”

Applications pending

Verizon Wireless has at least a half-dozen applications pending before the APA, according to documents on the agency’s website. Some of those are listed as LTE upgrades, including the replacement of antennas in the towns of Jay and Dannemora. The company also wants to build new towers in North Hudson, Putnam and Queensbury, and plans to add three new antenna arrays to an existing tower in the town of Clifton.

In mid July, Verizon Wireless also filed an application for a 100-foot-tall telecommunications tower on private property just south of the Mount Van Hoevenburg Intensive Use Area in the town of North Elba. The agency issued an incomplete permit application notice later that month and is still waiting for more details from the company, according to APA spokesman Keith McKeever.

AT&T has one application pending before the APA, for replacement of antennas on an existing tower in the town of North Hudson. It also has filed pre-application information for modifications to equipment on an existing fire tower in the town of Black Brook.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or