May 24, 2023

Residents Air Grievances At Special Work Session On Cell Phone Service

By Anne Levin

Anyone who lives in Princeton or drives through the area knows the frustrations of trying to make and receive cell phone calls. Weak service is an ongoing problem that results in dropped calls, calls that don’t ring and jump to voice mail, or an inability to make calls at all.

At a special work session held Monday evening, Princeton Council addressed the issue by inviting local carriers to make presentations on their services and plans to accommodate 5G technology, the planned successor to existing 4G networks. Representatives of Verizon Wireless and Crown Castle (which is a third-party facilities provider to carriers but doesn’t provide service itself) attended the session; AT&T was invited but declined.

The meeting was also an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns. Calling local services “abysmal,” “horrendous,” and “a matter of life and death” when emergency services cannot be reached, several people aired their frustrations. “Princeton is a town where there is a lot of dependence on cell phones,” said Snowden Lane resident Peter Madison. “If you can’t get cell service, you might as well move somewhere else.”

Madison said he doesn’t blame the carriers; rather he blames Council, the Planning Board, and the Zoning Board. “Because [you] are holding back and restricting towers from being built,” he said. “That’s what we need.”

The town’s Assistant Municipal Engineer Jim Purcell said the engineering department has been working with the providers to enhance the existing 4G service while preparing for 5G. “5G, however, is targeted for strategic locations in high traffic areas and will not solve the problems Princeton currently experiences,” he wrote in a memo to mayor and Council before the work session.

Some residents were particularly perturbed after viewing a map of Verizon’s coverage area during a presentation by Jennifer P. Young, the company’s state government affairs representative.

“The map is fiction, a complete and utter fiction,” said a resident of the Littlebrook neighborhood. “The company’s customer service is abysmal. I’ve been on the phone with them for hours. Plans are impossible to compare, and you can’t

figure out what you’re buying. Something has to be done; more towers, at least in our neighborhood.”

Van Williams of Governors Lane said he must go to his second floor to get reception. Former Councilman Bernie Miller, also of Governors Lane, complained that cell phone reception has been a problem for the last 10 to 15 years. “I have to go outside to make a call,” he said. “I’m 94 years old, and I rely on internet and phone for safety and health. I rely on it as a lifeline in the event I have a problem in my house.”

Lorna O. Sullivan, who lives at Copperwood on Bunn Drive, said the lack of service is frustrating, particularly in the basement. “You have to go outside, and then what happens when your cell phone doesn’t work? I’ve started petitions to get an emergency phone in that basement. It’s Verizon or nothing, like being in a communist country where you have no choice.”

Princeton Public Schools Superintendent Carol Kelley said there are connection issues in all of the town’s school buildings. “And it truly might be an issue of life and death,” she said. “At Johnson Park, they can’t count on cell service in any area of the building. We are potentially having to look at what technology can we as a school district put into our schools, because safety is a huge concern for staff members. We want staff and students know safety is a No. 1 priority.”

Young of Verizon said the company has met with representatives of Johnson Park. “We’re talking about some solutions,” she said. “We’re looking at a number of ways to address the issues.”

Several Councilmembers weighed in. Leighton Newlin asked who is responsible for fixing the problem. “I’m hoping to get some sort of timetable,” he said. “We need it fixed yesterday.”  Carver Chiu of Crown Castle said the fix has to come from the service providers.

Councilwoman Eve Niedergang asked that Verizon and Crown Castle update the municipality regularly on progress. “There’s a little bit of fraud going on here,” she said. “You’re selling a service but you’re not actually providing that service. People are paying a great deal of money and they’re not getting anything for it. This is life and death. We really need to hear more from you. I’d like a timetable, a schedule with measurable goals.”

Despite their frustrations, many of those who spoke thanked Council, Verizon, and Crown Castle for taking part in the work session.