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Verizon Wireless customers ‘furious’ with Durango-area service

Residents receive inconsistent answers from mobile carrier as to why problems persist
Michelle Nuc, who uses Verizon as her cellular provider, says it’s almost impossible to make a phone call let alone connect to the internet on mobile data in the Animas Valley. Nuc said she “loves” Verizon, but she wishes the carrier would install more towers to meet the needs of customers in the valley. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Spotty cellphone service for Verizon Wireless customers in the Animas Valley north of Durango has inconvenienced customers for years, causing some residents to ditch the carrier for alternative services and forcing businesses to install Wi-Fi boosters for their customers and employees.

The mobile phone carrier says dense network activity during the summer tourism months is to blame for fluctuating network issues, but residents have stomached unrelenting service trouble for years.

“Due to the unusually high volume of data over the network as a result of the increase in tourists during the summer season, customers may experience brief delays when connecting to the network,” said Kacie Elizabeth Holder, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, in an email to The Durango Herald.

Cellphones show a signal but calls frequently fail in the Hermosa area of the Animas Valley north of Durango. Some residents say service issues started as recently as this spring while others say problems have persisted for years. Verizon Wireless said network performance issues are a result of heavy tourist traffic during the summer. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

She said Verizon’s network team is monitoring the cellular network’s performance and is “actively pursuing a modification to our network to improve this area” and the project should be completed soon, although she didn’t elaborate on what steps are being taken to improve service quality.

North Dalton Ranch resident Christian Robbins said in an email he doesn’t buy Verizon’s reasoning that tourists are the root of service issues.

“I think Verizon would like to scapegoat the tourists – another problem ‘overtourism’ creates. But without Verizon showing the infrastructure does support local traffic – which based on my experience, it does not – I would hate for the community to let Verizon off the hook that it is our tourism that is to blame,” he said. “It is very likely Verizon simply has not invested in enough wireless infrastructure (cell towers, cell nodes and backhaul) to support our community’s needs.”

At the same time, he said there likely are too many users for the Verizon network servicing the Animas Valley.

“There are times when you do get wireless service and there are other times you don’t, so that must mean that there are too many users,” he said.

Robbins said the carrier’s service “hasn’t been particularly good” in the Animas Valley and around Durango proper for a “long time.” He said he no longer relies on wireless service at all and uses Wi-Fi to make calls as needed.

Michelle Nuc said she has lived in the Animas Valley for nine years and has always dealt with Verizon service problems in the area. She said she “loves” Verizon but wishes the carrier would install more service towers.

She works at PJ’s Gourmet Market on Trimble Lane just off of U.S. Highway 550. She has cell reception while at work, but when she gets home she has no mobile service. Like Robbins, she relies on Wi-Fi to communicate with people, mostly through text, while at home.

She said the further one goes into the valley, the worse service gets.

“Sometimes, if the internet goes down, you have to drive up to the road to get service,” she said.

Nuc said she has talked to Verizon customer service about its network performance and was told the carrier is working to address the issue. But she doesn’t know how the service problems can be fixed without installing more cellular towers.

“I just wish they’d get more towers out here for Verizon. Or any other service,” she said. “... But Verizon’s the main carrier so it’s really frustrating, even for the tourists that come in.”

A Herald Facebook post this week seeking feedback about Verizon’s service in the Animas Valley netted about 125 comments in 24 hours, most expressing frustration with the wireless provider. Some commenters offered hypotheses about what led to the degradation in service, including one person who said a cell tower burned in the 416 Fire (2018), and another who said she was told by Verizon that the government made the company switch to 5G and now the towers can’t handle the 4G and 5G customers.

Can lacking cell service pose problems to people trying to call 911?
A map of cell service coverage on Verizon Wireless’ website indicates that the Dalton Ranch Golf Club and the surrounding area in the Animas Valley is covered by 4G LTE cell service. But residents in the valley have dealt with spotty or a total lack of service in the area for years. (Screenshot)

Jack Turner, Animas Valley resident and candidate for District 1 county commissioner, said his greatest concern is safety.

“You can’t call 911 sometimes, or you couldn’t call the doctor,” he said. “In my case I’ve got a 90-year-old mom that my siblings and I take care of. If she can’t get a hold of me if something’s wrong or vice versa, it’s pretty troublesome.”

Holder, the Verizon spokeswoman, said first responders are given priority access to network resources for public safety efforts. 911 calls are also able to connect to any available networks regardless of whether the caller has an active account with a given network provider.

Turner said many of his neighbors are “furious” about the inadequate service and noted that people are paying for service they aren’t getting.

“I’m really concerned about this. I’m a candidate running for office,” he said. “I’m trying to call different groups of people every day and people are trying to call me. So this is rough, you know?”

He said he always gets the same response from Verizon customer service when he brings up the issue.

“I’ve had no luck in getting this issue fixed,” he said. “It’s just sort of the same story: ‘Sorry it’s not working. We apologize for the inconvenience.’”

Ted Holteen, spokesman for La Plata County, said the county has no relationship with wireless providers besides ensuring wireless towers conform to land-use code.

“We don’t get involved with any partnerships, coverage, technology, etc., nor do we lease any county land to a cellphone company,” he said in an email to the Herald.

The county received a pre-application from Fidelity Towers for a proposed 160-foot monopole for cellular communications, wireless internet and e911 covering Forest Lakes, Enchanted Forest and County Road 501 north of Bayfield, but no actual application had been submitted as of Friday, he said.

Verizon, along with AT&T, T-Mobile and the state of Colorado, are among Fidelity Towers’ clients, according to the developer.

Animas Valley residents to Verizon: Will you hear us now?
Jack Turner, a resident in the Animas Valley, often receives this notification on his phone when he is trying to place a call in the valley. Turner said he is concerned that unstable Verizon Wireless service could pose a safety risk if someone needed to call 911 or a doctor and can’t connect to any networks. (Courtesy of Jack Turner)

Some residents of the Animas Valley and Durango area say Verizon Wireless service has been shoddy for years. Others say it has only been the past few years or as recently as this spring when they noticed a steep decline.

Some residents are considering switching to a different provider while others say they have already made the leap.

Hanna Brown, Hermosa resident of 10 years, said her cell service started degrading in early spring. It started with dropped calls in her living room and got progressively worse from there, she wrote in an email to the Herald.

“Texts won’t send unless I put my phone on the shelf in the kitchen. I can only make calls from my bathroom,” she said. “I actually set up a mini desk on my bathroom sink so I could talk to clients.”

She said she has seven to eight dropped calls and three to five text messages fail to send every day.

“Every time I contact customer service, they tell me I ‘must not have a very good phone,’ or ‘a call drop from time to time is normal,’” she said. “They are totally gaslighting me. It’s. Maddening.”

North Animas Valley resident Heidi Goodman also started experiencing service issues in the spring.

“Group texts? Forget about it. Phone calls? Could not even get a call to go through,” Goodman said in an email. “After 20 years of service with Verizon, we switched to AT&T. Guess what? No problems! Apparently, they use different towers.”

She said service has been poor the last two summers, but the drop in quality reached a new low this spring. She said Verizon customer service told her she can purchase a signal booster and “pay for a higher level of service” for priority on the network.

That didn’t sit well with her.

“We were NOT going to give them more money because they were too cheap to upgrade the towers. Ridiculous ‘solution,’” she said.

Mandy Mikulencak, resident of Hermosa, said Verizon service issues hurt self-employed workers. She is self-employed and works from home. Important work calls with clients and co-workers frequently drop, and text messages that include photos often fail to send multiple times before they get through.

Mandy said she pays close to $80 a month for Verizon services and is fed up with her service being interrupted. She said Verizon customer service representatives have told her there are no service issues they are aware of in her area.

Brandon England, general manager of Dalton Ranch Golf Club, said Verizon service is “terrible” in the valley.

He uses a Wi-Fi booster inside the club to accommodate employees and golfers who must leave the greens to get service. He also installed a Wi-Fi booster at his home within the valley.

The Dalton Ranch Golf Club has about 650 golf members, and of those a “majority” of Verizon customers find the lack of reliable service “frustrating.” Some of his employees have switched carriers because Verizon doesn’t cut it in the valley.

The golf club plans to upgrade its point-of-sale and internet system with new technology and operating systems. The technology is designed to operate over mobile networks. The upgrade is important for maintaining the club register and billing and accounting business. But England is concerned whether new options rely on Verizon service or if they can be set up through other carriers, he said.

In his experience, Verizon service has been an issue for the last seven years out of the nine years he has lived in the valley.

When dealing with Verizon for billing or device troubleshooting, he always asks customer service representatives if there are any solutions for improving the network quality. But every time he has inquired, he is told his complaint is the first Verizon has heard of such issues.

About three years ago, a homeowners association was trying to organize valley residents and businesses to flood Verizon’s customer support hotlines with calls about service issues, England said. He couldn’t recall which HOA was behind the effort and he isn’t sure how far they got in their attempt to rally for better service.

Holder, the Verizon spokeswoman, did not acknowledge a request for a phone interview with the Herald. She also did not respond to follow-up questions about methods for improving service or information about active cell towers in the Animas Valley.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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