Rural C.O. cell coverage to get a boost at eclipse time

AT&T steps up, but Walden seeks permanent addition

MITCHELL, Ore. - As thousands plan to converge in Central Oregon on Aug. 21 to enjoy the first solar eclipse to pass over the continental United States since 1979, AT&T announced Monday it "is keeping data-hungry crowds connected. We’re bringing in extra network support so customers can share this milestone astronomical moment with their friends and family."

"Here’s how," the company's news release said. "We’re bringing in two Cell on Wheels (COWs) – or mobile cell sites – to get ready for the large number of smartphone users in Mitchell and Madras."

AT&T explained that COWs boosts internet connectivity. The improved coverage will give customers faster and more reliable connections as astronomy fans capture the solar eclipse and share with their friends and family on social media. 

“This solar eclipse will be one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments customers will want to share with their social network through texts, pictures, and videos,” said Mike Maxwell, vice president and General Manager of AT&T Pacific Northwest. “We’re working to give them great coverage and fast speeds.”

AT&T. which claims to have the nation’s best data network, said, "We continue to see increased data usage across our mobile network, especially at big events. In fact, data on our mobile network has increased about 250,000% since 2007, and the majority of that traffic is video."

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., applauded the news of more, albeit temporary cellular service into and around Mitchell, in Wheeler County.

The action comes as the region prepares for the solar eclipse in August, when large crowds are expected to create new safety challenges for law enforcement and first responders. Walden said has heard from local safety officials about the importance of having access to cellular service in emergencies. 

"Bringing wireless service into and around Mitchell is long overdue and especially important given the crowds that are expected for the solar eclipse in August," the congressman said.

"At a town hall meeting I held in Mitchell on February 9th, community members again emphasized the life and death situations that are a reality when modern communications are lacking.  As chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, I raised this issue in a Washington, D.C. meeting with the FCC and with wireless carriers,” said Walden.

“This very rural area is highly traveled by tens of thousands of tourists seeking to experience the Painted Hills and the John Day Fossil Beds in the heart of Oregon. The even larger crowds expected in August for the total solar eclipse viewing has only heightened these concerns.

"When accidents occur in these remote areas, there is literally no way to call for help. I’ve heard from first responders about how the lack of cell coverage impacts their ability to save lives. Getting cellular service to this rural area is just one step toward a long-term solution to create jobs and improve safety. I am hopeful that this will pave the way for future plans to better connect the local community in this part of rural Oregon with cell phone service.”

Kiefer Davis, who previously served as Mitchell’s mayor, reached out to Walden to detail how access to cellular service would assist in his emergency response ability.

Davis currently operates an ambulance in the Mitchell area, which is positioned on Highway 26 -- the second most traveled highway in the state, according to the American Automobile Association and Oregon Department of Transportation. Davis is concerned that an increase in tourism traffic for the solar eclipse will only add to the safety challenges of responding to emergency situations without cellular capabilities. 

"Do I wish we had cell communications on Highway 26 to be able to save lives? Yes,” Davis said in a letter to Walden. “I’m a member of Mitchell Ambulance and I’ve seen what not being able to dial 911 on Highway 26 has done to people over the past 14 years. From Prineville to John Day (115 miles), there is zero cell service. Not even that little ‘Emergency Calls Only’ screen you get in the middle of nowhere.”

Similar temporary cell-on-wheels gear was brought to Mitchell a few years ago when a major wildfire threatened the area.

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