Radio frequency interference blamed for cell phone trouble

Radio frequency interference caused a disruption in cell phone service for some Alaska Communications wireless customers last month. The outage affected customers from about 10:30 a.m. Dec. 23 to about 11 a.m. Dec. 30, said Heather Cavanaugh, a spokesperson for Alaska Communications.

Customers reported being unable to make or receive phone calls or to send and receive text messages. The Homer News received complaints by email and Facebook message from some Alaska Communications customers saying they had no cell phone service at all. Some said they could text sporadically. If calls were made, people on the other end couldn’t hear them.

The outage also seemed to drain cell phone batteries more so than usual. Customers visiting from out-of-town who had Alaska Communications cell phones also reported being unable to make calls. Customers complained of not being able to contact family members in the Lower 48 on the Christmas holiday.

Cavanaugh said that what she called “radio frequency interference” had kept a cell phone tower from getting a quality signal. The affected tower was the one that serves the Homer Spit area, Cavanaugh said. However, the Homer News received complaints from customers in the Kachemak Drive and East End Road area near East Hill Road. 

“We have identified the frequency and will continue to monitor the source,” Cavanaugh said.

The interference stopped before technicians could isolate it, she said. Alaska Communications did not notify the Federal Communications Commission because it was not a reportable incident. Alaska Communications would have informed the FCC only if it had found the source, informed the source of the issue and the source refused to cease the interference when asked to do so, Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh declined to identify the exact location of the cell phone tower affected.

The FCC was investigating to see if there was an outage, but at press time couldn’t confirm that, said Neil Grace, FCC senior communications adviser, Washington, D.C.

Wireless phone networks generally use frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum in the range between 700 megahertz and 2.6 gigahertz. That’s also in the range used by television and wifi companies. Wireless networks also use other frequencies on microwave links and other parts of the system.

Cavanaugh said the recent interference was unusual.

“As far as I can recall in my time (with Alaska Communications) in the last six years, I don’t recall a radio frequency has been the cause of a wireless interruption in service,” she said.

Late last year, Alaska Communications announced that it will discontinue wireless service and that GCI will take over service for current Alaska Communications customers. The transition from Alaska Communications to GCI hasn’t started yet and the December outage wasn’t related to the transition since it has not yet begun.

The transition from Alaska Communications to GCI will begin this year, Cavanaugh said. Alaska Communications and GCI both own the wireless network. When the transition is complete, GCI will then be the sole owner of the wireless network. Technically, Alaska Communications customers won’t notice a change in service, Cavanaugh said.

David Morris, vice president of corporate communications for GCI, said the financial closing for the purchase by GCI of the Alaska Communications wireless network will be at the end of January. Customers will be transferred over in the months after that. Any technical issues in December with Alaska Communications wireless service were an Alaska Communications issue, he said.

Alaska Communications customers who have problems with wireless or other phone services can call 800-808-8083 for assistance, Cavanaugh said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at