Cell phone use grows despite signal challenges in area

Gadgets abound, but in Northwest Colorado cell phones need good range

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Melody Gingrich's 8-year-old daughter is already asking for a cell phone.

The communication craze has infiltrated every corner of the country, including the corners of Moffat County where it is hard to receive a cell phone signal.

Kids want fancy phones, the elderly want functional phones, but the most important thing in Craig is to have a phone that works, says Vicky Hamblin of Ensignal.

Moffat County can be problematic for cell phone users due to a lack of cell phone towers, Hamblin said. She considers it her obligation to educate customers about cell phone capabilities, and refuses to sell free or cheap phones with weak signals.

"Free isn't always a good deal," she said.

Denver residents can get by with them because cellular companies have many more towers in the metro area.

"The signal is the most important factor, not what these fancy phones can do," she said.

It seems cell phones are capable of more every day. Ensignal just received a shipment of camera phones at the beginning of the week. Already many customers have expressed interest in the phones. However, they don't work so well in the area, because a strong digital signal is needed to send a picture over the phone.

All the same, Hamblin said the camera phones are nice because they are lightweight and easy to carry in the hills. One can save several pictures on the phone and send them from an area where a signal is available.

Many phones can identify their user's location for emergency 911 calls through a global positioning system. Phones feature currency converters, FM stereo headsets, MP3 players, multiple language options, blackjack and video poker games, and phonebooks capable of containing more than 500 entries.

But the majority of Ensignal customers, about 75 percent, want phones for travel purposes, Hamblin said.

On Friday afternoon, a customer came to the store looking to upgrade her phone and calling plan. She'd owned a phone for six years and had used it for a total of eight minutes during that time, keeping the phone for emergencies only.

Her concern was her current phone wouldn't get reception were she to hit a deer or an elk while driving through a valley or canyon. But in her areas of concern, such as the canyon between Rifle and Colowyo Coal Company, almost no phone can catch a signal. It would take a tremendous number of towers to provide coverage down there, Hamblin said. At $750,000 a tower, new tower construction isn't a likely eventuality.

On the same afternoon, a father brought his daughter into Hamblin's store the day after her eighteenth birthday to buy her a phone. She was fascinated by the games such as Tetris that the phone featured. Her father wanted a flat rate 1,000 minute plan. As Hamblin talked to the father, his daughter explored the phone's many ring options.

In the past two years, since digital coverage became available in the area, Hamblin has seen many more parents buy phones for their children. The old analog coverage meant cell phone users had to often go on roam for a signal, and roaming charges are expensive. Parents were quicker to buy their children phones knowing the chances of receiving a three-digit cell phone bill had decreased.

Users must be 18 or older to sign a cell phone contract, so - have to have their parents sign for them. Hamblin said she knows some of the kids pay their parents back, but she suspects most of the bills don't make it past mom and dad.

"Parents want the security of a phone," she said.

It's a way to keep track of where the children are, as well as to avoid long-distance charges when the kids leave the nest, Hamblin said. When her only daughter went to college, Hamblin talked to her almost every day for the cost of a local call.

And Hamblin suspects that many divorced parents buy their children cell phones as a way to keep track of them when they are with the other parent. The kid goes to dad's house and so does the phone, with instructions to call if the child isn't happy, Hamblin said.

Those phones also go to school with the child, and Moffat County High School has developed management guidelines for cell phone use in school. Students may have phones, but they can't use them in class or in any way that is disruptive to the educational process, said Principal Jane Krogman.

The phone will be confiscated if not turned off, but Krogman said she has only had to take such measures once or twice in her three-year career.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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