Can You Hear Me NOW? Hello? Hello?

I’ll start by saying I am a long-time Verizon Wireless (VZW) customer. 25-years, actually (back when it was known as PacTel Cellular in the LA-area). And I’ve kept it all these years because it works – in all my travels, there haven’t been too many place where they DIDN’T work and someone else DID. As the ads once said – “It’s the network.”

They also DO work on Molokai. Mostly. Maybe the “can you hear me now?” guy should have spent just a LITTLE more time here, but maybe that’s not their fault either.

In a VERY informal test on the just ONE time we DROVE around the island (can’t drive and look at phone at the same time – Hawaii, by the way, requires hands-free devices and no texting while driving), service was weak-to-non-existent the further EAST you went from Kuanakakai, where service is “meh,” but acceptable (three-dots on the iPhone 5 – and 4G service in places – kinda depended on where you were standing). Ditto if you went north past Kualapuu (although just like east of Kaunakakai, there were the most-curious dead-zones – which, as always, famously reveal themselves when you are actually TRYING to use the phone FOR something – like directions from Google Maps)(who, by the way, need to send that little car around HERE – youse guys were WAY off on one address, although maybe that’s NOT their fault – houses RARELY have numbers on them – and randomly walking-up to the wrong house is NOT my way of meeting new people).

Reception reports from various Websites (there ARE such things – isn’t the Internet a WONDERFUL place?) DO give VZW the HIGHEST grade for service on Molokai. Such that 2.8-out-of-5 is a “glowing” recommendation of anything.

So they are at least BETTER than anyone else here (I certainly enjoy having chosen the winner, at least). And VZW’s OWN map shows service IS sketchy where we were staying. Knowledge is power, of course – and it probably saved the life of my iPhone the times I had to repeat myself repeatedly on the FEW phone calls I DID make or get (I usually tried to defer phone calls until we walked into Kaunakakai – AND were able to find a sheltered place to call FROM as, of course, NO ONE can hear YOU if those “gentle” trade winds are blowing into the mouthpiece – at 20-MPH).

WESTbound, on the other hand… oooooooh myyyyy… strong signal from the center of island (where VZW’s main microwave receiver and antenna is located on 1345-foot high Puu Nana, the top of a one-time volcano and the highest CENTRAL point on Molokai – most of the residents and businesses tend to be clustered toward the center of the island). And VZW built a wonderful antenna in Maunaloa on the FAR west end of the island. Incredible signal and blazing-fast 4G service to the west and some of the northeast parts of the island.

Two cell sites to serve an ENTIRE island (if VZW has another antenna, I’m not seeing it – or finding it – although I haven’t been EVERYWHERE on Molokai, of course).

I found this rather odd for a population of 7,345 (2010 census) and covering 260-square miles. A cell site typically has a 10-to-30-mile radius of coverage, depending on a LOT of factors – and THEORETICALLY, a single cell site COULD cover 314 square-miles. But there is a MUCH larger ancient volcano, Kamakou (at 4961-feet tall, it is Molokai’s LARGEST peak), standing between the VZW antenna at Puu Nana and the nice Halawa State Beach park, where the “north shore” meets the “east shore.” It’s a VERY nice and pretty place with a black sand beach, at the end of Hawaii Highway 450 (if you’re prone to car sickness, this might be the time you take something for that)(I am, but a fair-chunk of the road is one-lane with MANY blind curves that the locals know like the back of their right hand and drive at speeds MUCH over the posted limit of 20-MPH, as people with total-familiarity of a road are inclined to do – unfortunately, it is often as much of a surprise to THEM as it is to YOU that you’re BOTH trying to occupy the SAME place at the SAME time – and NOTHING will take your mind off of being car-sick QUITE like working hard to stay alive 🙂 ).

(Absolutely True: during our time here, I spent some time following this notorious little route out to its end on Google Earth – and their satellite shot at the time showed emergency vehicles at a two-car collision on the narrower part of the road. Pony wanted to go ANYWAY – but make SURE you have insurance on your rental car. And you might want to use that credit card that includes all the extra car rental coverages. You just don’t know on that road.)

But it’s REALLY clear the VZW “can you hear me now?” guy HASN’T been out to Halawa State Beach. Frankly, I don’t think any OTHER provider has service in THAT area (like I said – unscientific test – and as points on Maui are within 15-20 miles across the Pailolo Channel, you MIGHT pick-up SOME signal)(Pailolo is Hawaiian for “crazy fisherman,” alluding to the sanity of someone trying to navigate the channel’s currents TO fish, so you might skip the idea of swimming for help). I “get” it – there really ISN’T anyone OUT there. But go upside-down out THERE and you’re up the proverbial creek (or literal creek, depending on how bad your luck IS at that point) without a paddle.

But cellular phone companies aren’t in the business to LOSE money or providing a necessary “utility service,” like water and electric companies (it only SEEMS like we CAN’T live without them). So the antennas are going to be where the business is.

Which led to the seemingly-strange VZW site on the west-end of Molokai, in the town of Maunaloa. Cell service there would be blocked by the remains of the 1381-foot high Mauna Loa Volcano (more-commonly referred to as the “West Molokai Volcano,” mostly to keep it from being confused with the MUCH taller 13,679-foot Mauna Loa on the “Big Island” of Hawaii)(“Mauna Loa” means “long mountain” in Hawaiian – one imagines it’s HOW you say it in Hawaiian that enabled them to express the difference between the two: “no, not ‘Mauna Loa’ – MAUNA LOA!”), so yes, another cell site WOULD be a good idea – until you GET there and see there ISN’T anything really THERE…

…or, more-precisely, ISN’T anything there ANYMORE… while being a sad story for another time, for THIS story, suffice it to say there is about as much going on in WEST Molokai NOW as there is in EAST Molokai. Nothing.

And that WASN’T the case when VZW went through what appears to be a four-year process to UPGRADE their existing antenna at Maunaloa so it could support 3G service (goodness only knows HOW long and HOW much trouble they went through to get the FIRST antenna there at THAT rate). The problem with THAT was that by the time they finally GOT the thing set-up, the business that WAS there – the Molokai Ranch company, its offices, resorts, restaurants, movie theaters – had closed-up shop and left.

Wellll… at least it can provide service to cruise ships going around the west end on their way to/from Oahu or Maui (and while we were here, a boat sank coming around Laua Point and someone was able to use their cell phone to call for help)(smart boaters – their locator beacon went off at the same time, but when you’re sinking, you can’t make TOO many calls for help).

But not cruise ships coming to Molokai – residents have a very active program that, unfortunately, also stymies economic growth.  In a place where many residents are opposed to thing taller than a palm tree (no building on the island is taller than two-stories), this makes it all the more difficult to put-up a cell tower.

VZW had already been working on extending service eastward by arranging to share an existing microwave tower at the University of Hawaii Maui College’s Molokai Education Center on the east end of Kaunakakai (a town on the south side of the central island). At 80-feet tall, it’s probably taller than many palm trees – and the higher-up a cell site’s antennas are, the greater the range can be (two of the competitors – it’s hard for me to say WHICH ones, but judging by their coverage maps, my guess would be AT&T and T-Mobile – have antennas in Kaunakakai on top of one of the apparently-few two-story buildings in Molokai).

VZW’s work on this project goes back to at least 2006.  It still hasn’t been installed yet. Maybe they don’t NEED to – the service is acceptable in Kaunakakai and frankly I’ve not had to make that many phone calls (Pony gets more calls than I usually do now that I’ve left the service). The ones made at the condo were not very good, but still do-able and really, who cares about a cranky old man who doesn’t make call anyway? And these things DO cost money – and no matter HOW good your service is, it doesn’t matter if few people are there to USE it – and help to pay for it.

I CAN hear you – I just wish I could hear you BETTER.  And if I was one of those people who was involved in that accident that could be seen from outer space, I would probably be wishing YOU could hear ME now – from all the way out there 🙂

Most phone models will allow emergency use – 911 calls – on competitor networks (in many phones, this availability is indicated by a symbol – typically “SOS” – indicating your phone has access to another competitor network for emergency calls). I couldn’t find anything about how an iPhone does this – it appears to do it automatically – but in many other phones, you may need to manually switch the “preferred” or “home” network setting to a setting that allows your particular phone to “roam” to another provider, otherwise your phone may not even THINK to check to see if another network might be able to work for you in an emergency.

If you would like to better-rely on your phone for an emergency, figure-out what settings you need your phone to have BEFORE you need to figure it out in an emergency.