How crowdsourcing will give Hilton Head better mobile coverage

Hilton Head, S.C., is an island full of sandy beaches, manicured golf courses and lush green trees. But one thing the island community doesn’t have is good cellular coverage. The local government has decided to do something about it, and with the help of mobile crowdsourcing technology, it has begun making its case to wireless operators for better service.

As you might expect from a town that thrives off a tourism and seasonal residents – 2 million visitors a year frequent the island – maintaining Hilton Head’s scenic views is a big priority for its local government, and  hulking cell towers tend to mar those vistas. As a result, tough restrictions on where cell towers can go have prevented the operators from expanding their networks, leading to poor and sometimes non-existent reception all over the island.

That may seem like a necessary trade-off for the sake or preserving the community’s standards, but the policy has now come into direct conflict with the town’s economic livelihood. It’s bad enough that residents have to endure poor service, but vacationers have come to expect good cellular coverage, especially the conference and executive retreat crowd. These days you can get decent signal on a cruise ship at sea, so why not in Hilton Head?

There’s an app for that – many of them

Hilton Head’s town council created a task force to find a solution to the coverage problem, and it reached out to RootMetrics, a Seattle-based wireless network-testing firm that uses crowdsourcing to collect much of its data. The task force recruited local volunteers to download Root’s network testing app on their smartphones and then fanned them across the island to test for signal strength, call success and data coverage and speed.

They came back with 20,000 data points, which Root compiled into detailed maps showing just where the problem spots lay. As you can see, Verizon fared much better than AT&T(s T), Sprint(s S) and T-Mobile, but there were still several problem spots in Verizon’s network as well.

RootMetrics CEO Bill Moore said that the detailed coverage maps gave Hilton Head the objective data it needed to make its case to the operators for more coverage. “But they also understood this wasn’t entirely a carrier problem,” Moore said. “Zoning and neighborhood aesthetic issues were also part of the problem, and there was a recognition that they needed to be more flexible to get carriers on board.”

According to the local paper, The Island Packet, the town council approved several of the task force’s recommendations to streamline cell tower permits and leases. Now all eyes turn to the carriers.

Lighting a fire under the operators

Verizon Wireless spokesperson Karen Schulz said that the operator has been talking with Hilton Head community leaders for years about improving coverage and quality, but there “have been some challenges.” Schulz said, however, Verizon was encouraged by Hilton Head’s new willingness to work directly with the carriers to solve their mutual problem.

That progress has resulted in plans to launch a new cell site in the southern part of the island. In addition, Verizon is working with a gated community Hilton Head Plantation to deploy a new LTE distributed antenna system, Schulz said, which would replace a normally imposing tower with numerous low slung antennas scattered throughout the neighborhood. Schulz said there are still other problem spots throughout the island, but Verizon plans to work with the community to resolve them.

“We really want to work hand-in-hand with them to not only have good quality service, but to make sure they also enjoy a good quality of life,” she said. “Aesthetics are definitely important.”

AT&T was less specific about its plans to improve coverage on the island, though AT&T gave us the following statement: “Going forward, AT&T is looking forward to working with the town of Hilton Head and the mayor’s task force in order to provide enhanced coverage for our customers in the area.”

While Hilton Head’s coverage problems are far from solved, Root’s Moore said he was surprised by how the community was able to mobilize to make their case before the carriers. In the past, towns with poor coverage or dead zones have had to rely solely on subjective data when arguing for better service, he said.

“If government and the populace can work together and the work cooperatively with the wireless industry it shows you can solve a lot of these problems,” Moore said.