A cell tower rises above the Harpswell Community Garden at George J. Mitchell Field on Harpswell Neck. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
Two Harpswell residents have launched a campaign that aims to pressure Verizon into joining the new cell tower at Mitchell Field. Their efforts appear to be having an effect, with a Verizon executive telling one of the residents that Harpswell is now the carrier’s top priority in Maine, although a Verizon spokesperson declined to confirm those comments to the Anchor.
Paul Kittle, of Orr’s Island, and Dennis Wilkins, of Bailey Island, are Verizon customers who, despite their frustration with the carrier, are not ready to give up. Both said they were spurred to action by a July report in the Anchor that Verizon would not join the tower.
“There’s quite a number of citizens who, after the article in the Anchor, were very upset to find out that Verizon was not going to jump on this tower over here,” Kittle told the Harpswell Board of Selectmen on Sept. 1. “And there is a move building out in the public to try to change that.”
Kittle learned about a small town in New Hampshire that petitioned carriers to install equipment on a planned tower. He obtained a copy of the petition and modified it to fit Harpswell’s situation.
Kittle’s petition mentions Harpswell’s aging population and status as a vacation destination. But most importantly, he wants to communicate the importance of cell service for safety reasons.
Kittle serves as rescue captain with the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department. He said that poor cellular service can impact the ability of both 911 callers and the department to communicate with the Cumberland County Regional Communications Center.
The Communications Center dispatches the department by radio, but the department also uses an app called IamResponding that provides more information about a call and has other features that can improve emergency communications.
Unlike radio traffic, IamResponding messages are not accessible by the public. Because of privacy concerns, Kittle said, dispatchers sometimes include additional medical information in an IamResponding message. But OBIFD first responders who have Verizon can’t get IamResponding updates on the road.
“I think we’re going to push, and you’ll see us push, the safety issue more than anything,” Kittle told the select board.
Petitions are available at seven Harpswell restaurants and stores: Bailey Island General Store, Cook’s Lobster & Ale House, Fishnet Cafe and Sundrenched on Bailey Island; Salt Cod Cafe on Orr’s Island; and The Dolphin Marina and Restaurant and Uncle Pete’s Community Market on Harpswell Neck.
Kittle also plans to collect signatures at the Transfer Station on the second and third Saturdays in October. “I’d love to see hundreds” of signatures, he told the select board. “I’d really like to see thousands.”
While Kittle leads the petition drive, Wilkins is lobbying Verizon. After spending fruitless hours contacting Verizon employees on his own, Wilkins connected with state Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, who directed him to an executive named Stephanie Lee.
According to Wilkins, a few days after their initial conversation, Lee told him that Verizon had made Harpswell its top priority in Maine, although the process to improve service could take up to two years. She encouraged him to follow through with the petition.
Lee told Wilkins that his letter to another Verizon executive, McCreight’s intervention, and reporting by the Anchor contributed to the change in Verizon’s position, according to Wilkins.
In response to a call and email to Lee, Verizon spokesperson Andrew Testa provided a brief statement, but did not confirm Lee’s comments.
“Verizon continues to invest in our network to deliver our customers the quality experience and reliability they expect and deserve,” the statement says. “We understand the importance of staying connected, and we are committed to exploring new ways to enhance the network experience for our Harpswell customers in the future.”
In response to a follow-up question about the Mitchell Field tower, Testa said in an email that he had “Nothing to share on specific plans at this time.”
In phone interviews — via Wi-Fi for Kittle and landline for Wilkins — both described their frustration as Verizon customers on the Harpswell islands.
“We can’t reliably have a cellphone call, whether we’re trying to call out or people are trying to call in,” Wilkins said.
An outgoing text message can take multiple attempts to go through, Wilkins said. Incoming texts sometimes arrive hours after being sent, or even the next day.
Wilkins spends about $900 a year to keep his landline, which he would cancel if he had reliable cell service.
Kittle said that he can only use his cellphone at home through Wi-Fi. It becomes essentially useless when he leaves the house.
At the Sept. 1 meeting, Kittle told the select board he would ask for its support when he is ready to take the petition to Verizon.
The board did not take formal action, but Chair Kevin Johnson indicated that it would be receptive. At a Sept. 15 meeting, all three members of the board expressed support for the effort.
Kittle’s petition calls on Verizon to “immediately install wireless cell service equipment on the new tower at Mitchell Field for the safety and convenience of emergency responders, community residents and visitors.”
Blue Sky Towers LLC leased the tower site from the town and started construction in July 2021. The tower has capacity for four wireless carriers. AT&T was first to join, activating its equipment in January 2022.
In response to questions from readers about the prospects of Verizon — the nation’s largest wireless phone company — joining the tower, the Anchor reported in July 2022 that Verizon would not join the tower.
“Our network engineers have confirmed our network is running as designed in the Harpswell area to handle the needs of our customers,” a Verizon spokesperson said at the time. “With that in mind, we do not currently require an extra site at this time.”