Cellphone coverage ‘dead zones’ impact rural areas

Investigations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – If you happened to have a medical emergency while driving through parts of Hawkins or Hancock counties, it would do no good to pull out your cellphone.

Some rural areas of Tennessee, where there is little population, have no internet or cellphone coverage.

We spoke with a group of people affected by the “dead zone” of cell service.

According to state records, cellphone service in Tennessee earns a coverage of 86 out of 100. Those numbers are measured by the amount of coverage by four providers: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint.

However, in many less-populated areas of the state, there are cellphone “dead zones’ where people remain “invisible” to social media “friends” and to the larger marketplace.

When Danny Ashley tries to make a cell phone call, when in parts of Hancock or Hawkins County, he’s out of luck. His phone and others like it register no bars.

On the north side of Clinch Mountain it’s estimated hundreds of people have no service.

“As soon as you come down the mountain the cell service drops off. We may get half a bar or one bar at this location. You go 50 yards to the left, you have none,” says Ashley.

“As a teacher, the students at Clinch School could not go home and do homework. All their homework had to be done at school which is very hard,” says Nancy Bell.

The issues of basic infrastructure—the things many take for granted, such as internet service and cell phone coverage—have always been a challenge in rural areas of Tennessee where there are fewer people, who are more spread out, and there’s a lot less money.

These basic issues are a concern for the people we talked with.

“It shows one bar but if I were to walk on the backside of this building there would probably be zero. If you don’t have access to cell phone coverage and all you have is a cell phone, calling 911 won’t work because you can’t get to 911,” says Bill Cornrich.

There were smiles in April, when Sunset Digital Communications received a $1.3 million state grant to provide fiber-optic broadband internet throughout Treadway and other areas of southwestern Hancock County.

Several hundred homes in Treadway would be getting broadband service, but not all.

“Landline does very well with the telephone. We have absolutely no cell at all,” says Gary Bell.

We met with a group of concerned people who said they’ve been “forgotten” and are “being ignored” by cellphone providers.

“All these people on the north side of Clinch Mountain are poorly served by lack of cell service and lack of high speed internet,” says Beth Wallace, a Hawkins County resident.

Hawkins County Commissioner Larry Clounce says he’s been told by cellphone companies that it is not economically feasible to install expensive cell towers to the less populated areas of Hancock and Hawkins County.

However, he believes people in his district deserve being part of the 21st century.

“Hopefully we can get something started, get some meetings set up with Powell Valley that serves this side of the mountain. Maybe even facilitate a meeting with Governor Lee,” Clounce said.

Residents say they hope to see a cell tower on Clinch Mountain sometime in the near future. It may be a while before there is service. At least, the conversation is underway.

Each year, the Appalachian Regional Commission prepares an economic status index.

Hancock County ranks among the 10% most economically distressed counties – in the nation.

Its neighbor, Hawkins County, is designated as an “at risk” county, according to the commission.

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