Your Stories: Why is Route 154 in Haddam a Cell Phone Dead Zone?

Route 154 in Haddam is a cell phone dead zone, and locals say it’s been that way for years. But despite multiple pushes for better service, none of the major carriers have committed to investing in the area, and the town’s main artery still remains off the grid.

During our recent Connect-A-Thon, several viewers called to complain about a longstanding lack of cell phone reception in town. NBC Connecticut looked into those concerns and found out what’s behind the wait.

First Selectwoman Lizz Milardo made fixing the issue one of her campaign platforms when she first ran for office two and a half years ago. She said the lack of reception isn’t just a matter of convenience, but a public safety threat on the roads and the nearby Connecticut River.

“A lot of people come to Haddam Meadows, go off Eagle Landing, and there is no cell phone service. So God forbid there’s any type of an emergency. To dial 911 is a struggle,” she said.

An unfortunate example of that occurred in June 2016 at the intersection of Route 154 (Saybrook Road) and Jail Hill Road, where a bicyclist was killed after colliding with a car.

“When people went to the scene to try to call 911, they couldn’t get a signal,” Milardo said. “So they had to run to a neighbor’s house and ask to use the phone to have help come for him. Whether that made a difference or not, I don’t know, but unfortunately he passed away. And it’s always that question of, what if someone had had a cell phone that could reach out to 911 and make a phone call?”

Milardo said after national media attention surrounding the winter ice jams at the swing bridge in town, Verizon installed several booster boxes at key locations including the town hall and the firehouse. But those only have a range of about a quarter mile, she said, and only help Verizon customers. For contiguous coverage of the Route 154 corridor, Milardo said three new cell phone towers are needed. A plan for those three towers was already approved at the local level two years ago.

Two of the three towers would be situated on town-owned property near the firehouse and the ball fields off Jail Hill Road; the third would be on private property in the Tylerville section. The town-owned sites are already generating income for the town in the form of monthly rent from Danbury-based developer Homeland Towers. In 2016, more than one hundred residents turned out to a town meeting in support of a contract with Homeland Towers, which passed nearly unanimously. Milardo said two residents spoke out against the towers at that meeting.

A town-wide petition in the fall of 2017 garnered more than 600 resident signatures asking the four major cell phone companies to invest in Haddam. Months later, there’s been no answer from the providers.

NBC Connecticut reached out to the four companies – Verizon, T Mobile, Sprint and AT&T. None would commit to investing in new towers, instead offering the following statements respectively:

Verizon: “We are always looking for opportunities to improve our network. We have several projects, that we are pursuing, which would result in improved coverage in the area.” When asked if that included the new towers, a spokesperson responded, “We aren't ready to share plans yet.”

T-Mobile: “While we’re aggressively building out our network, this area isn’t in the plan right now and we’re not currently pursuing the Haddam sites that Homeland Tower has leased with the town.”

Sprint: “We are always looking to improve cell service for our customers which is why the Sprint cell site closest to Haddam is slated to receive some important technology upgrades in the coming months. We will be adding two new spectrum bands (800 MHz and 2.5 GHz) of service to the site to improve both voice service and data speeds. These upgrades will bring the best coverage and speed that Sprint offers to that cell site. At this time, we do not have additional plans to announce, but we’re very interested in working with the local municipality to understand how we can best meet their needs in the future.”

AT&T: “We are always looking for ways to improve service and the experience for our customers. In fact, we have invested nearly $325 million in our Connecticut networks in the past three years, including in Haddam. This year, we plan to make additional upgrades in the area, including enhancing capacity on existing cell sites. If customers have questions about their service, we suggest they contact our customer care team at 1-800-331-0500.”

The tower plan would still need final approval from the state Siting Council if a carrier does sign on, but until that happens, the dead zone continues along Route 154. When asked about topographical challenges cited by her predecessor in a 2017 interview with the Middletown Press, Milardo said Haddam’s terrain hasn’t proven to be a factor in the carriers’ decisions.

“Why they’re not spending the capital I don’t know, I can only guess,” she said. “This is a community that is asking please, put a tower up for us and help us.”

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