UrbanTurf Weekend Edition: Can You Hear Me Now?

by Janelle Nanos

It was the snow boots that really bothered Greg Lopes the most.

When the city was frozen over this February, when people lost power and couldn’t leave their homes for days, Lopes found himself out on the patio of his first floor apartment, standing in five degree weather attempting to call into his office. Sure, he saw the irony: Lopes, who works in health care policy, was subjecting himself to illness while trying to make calls to pass historic health care reform. But the most frustrating part was that Lopes knew that even after the snow melted, he’d still end up on the patio. Rain, snow, sleet or sun, there was no cell phone coverage in his apartment.

Nearly 20 percent of Americans now rely on cell phones as their primary telephone line, a number that has doubled in the past four years, reports the Pew Research Center, which has had to shift their survey policies in order to account for that change.

UrbanTurf Weekend Edition: Can You Hear Me Now?: Figure 1
Lopes making a call in the one place that he can find a signal.

You don’t need a study to recognize that DC’s young, affluent population make up just the kind of respondents that Pew noted were most likely to be cell-only telephone users. Just look at any bar, Metro platform, or coffee shop. And cherish their cell phones they do. A study released last October by Samsung revealed that 27 percent of city residents would rather forgo sex for a year than ditch using their cell phone for the same amount of time.

All of this means that it’s become increasingly important for your cell phone to actually work when you’re at home, not only so you can answer when Pew gives you a ring, but so that you can stay in touch with the outside world, or in a worst case scenario, attempt to make a 911 call. It becomes a quality of life issue, as comments about DC coverage at Cellreception.com attest through a chorus of frustration:

15th Street NE/South Capitol: “Virtually no reception at my new house—I receive messages hours after they were sent, and calls do not come through!”

13th and Colorado: “90 percent of calls dropped in and outside around my house. Perfect reception everywhere else in the city.”

Wisconsin Avenue: “My iPhone drops every phone call inside my house. If I am on a call I always have static.”

Lopes acknowledges that he’s made life more difficult for himself. He doesn’t have a computer or WiFi installed in his apartment, and he’s “not an early adopter,” so Skype isn’t really an option. He doesn’t want the expense of having to add a landline and he doesn’t want to change his carrier. But mainly it’s a matter of principle. He’s subleasing his apartment in the Allegro Apartments in Columbia Heights, a modern building with amenities galore. He says he never thought to check whether his phone worked before deciding to move in.

“I have Verizon, one of the only carriers that works on the Metro,” says Lopes. “If you can get a signal underground, you should be able to get one in your apartment.”

“We understand and empathize with [his] concerns, and some members of our staff who use Verizon have experienced the weak signal in a few locations within the building,” said Nicole Jones, a spokesperson for Kettler Management, which manages Allegro. “The best solution is for Verizon to improve its service in our area and, although it’s not something we can control, we have reached out to Verizon to request that they strengthen their signal ASAP.”

Verizon could fix the problem, but Lopes’ case also raises a question about whether building management should be more upfront about cell phone service in their units.

“It’s certainly a valid question,” says Long & Foster’s Lance Horsley. “There is no space on a home seller’s disclosure form provided under DC law about communications — nothing about Internet or cable.” Horsley noted that disclosure forms generally cover items of typical concern to a buyer like damage to property, termites, floods, leaks, but that in this day in age, phone reception may need to be included.

“I think this is a newer phenomenon due in part to the way that concrete and steel buildings are being constructed,” he said. “I have sold condos all over the area, and you hear from clients all the time that they have to walk to their windows to get reception.”

For Robert Michael Murray, an adjunct professor of Public Relations and Corporate Communications at Georgetown University, it is a matter of social responsibility.

“At what point is it dependent on the real estate community to disclose the information?” Murray wondered. “Data is listed about square footage and how many windows have southern exposure on Redfin.com — when does cell reception get incorporated into that? Or more importantly, when are people going to start demanding it?”

Murray said that since the management companies aren’t disclosing the information, the person occupying the unit is the one who’d be responsible for telling a prospective tenant, and that’s only if they’re nice enough to do so.

“At some point, some lawsuit is going to come along and shift that.”

Lopes says he isn’t yet ready to go that route.

“It’s turned warm and I can sit outside and talk,” he rationalized. “And they’ve said they are working on resolving the problem before next winter.”

Janelle Nanos is a Washington, DC-based journalist. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate and New York magazine among other publications.

See other articles related to: editors choice

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/can_you_hear_me_now/2003


  1. Julia said at 8:19 pm on Friday April 23, 2010:
    Great piece and oh so true. The only place I can receive and make calls in my Logan Circle unit is right by the window. I have Verizon and have spoken to a number of other residents in the building that have the same exact problem.
  1. Northampton said at 1:32 pm on Saturday April 24, 2010:
    I live in Chevy Chase and have had cell phones with Verizon and AT&T. The only place I have been able to get reception on either service is in a top floor bedroom. This is in a four-bedroom home. I have called the companies for help and both say the same thing: You should have no problem getting service where you are.
  1. Glover Park said at 4:21 pm on Saturday April 24, 2010:
    @Northampton have you ever considered getting a cell phone booster antenna for your house? http://www.alternativewireless.com/cellular-antennas/index.html It can make every room like that upstairs bedroom. As for those in apartments - what are our options? I have reception but those on the other side of my building don't - due in part to the Russian embassy next door. Great article!
  1. Northampton said at 8:39 pm on Saturday April 24, 2010:
    Glover Park, thanks for the advice! I will look into it.
  1. ANON said at 2:42 pm on Monday April 26, 2010:
    Same problem in Silver Spring at Blair Plaza. No cell reception on the SW side of the building and Verizon refuses to do anything about it.
  1. John said at 3:33 pm on Monday April 26, 2010:
    Verizon and At&T and I believe Sprint sell micro-cell (femtocell) boxes that hook into your internet connection and produce a micro-sized cell tower in your home for up three devices. Typically they run around $250 with no extra fees. Seems like an easy answer until more towers are installed.
  1. Izzy said at 4:08 pm on Monday April 26, 2010:
  1. Disclosure Requirement is Silly said at 4:21 pm on Monday April 26, 2010:
    I think it is pretty ridiculous for this guy to suggest that a seller be required to disclose the cell phone coverage level. If this is important to the buyer then they need to make themselves comfortable with the particular home before moving forward. I agree that it's an important thing to know, but a buyer should not expect a seller to be required to provide this information. I bet Michael Murray wouldn't want to be responsible for accurately providing this information when he is a seller later... Is the seller supposed to check each carrier? What if the signal changes from the time you check to the time you go under contract? Is the seller now lying?
  1. jj said at 6:13 pm on Monday April 26, 2010:
    your cell company can tell you if your area is covered before you buy and they can tell you if a cell tower near your home is down, not working or operating properly. i suffered through weeks of dropped calls until i asked them and they sent repairmen out to the tower. all is fine now!
  1. Will Smith said at 6:29 pm on Monday April 26, 2010:
    What's unclear about this whole issue is whether the "fault" is with the phone company or the building's construction materials. In many cases where a person can't receive coverage, they seem to be able to get coverage if they just walk to the other side of the room or house or go outside. That would suggest the problem is with the building, not the cell coverage, since coverage shouldn't vary dramatically within such short distances. If that's the case, is there anything the cell companies can really do to help? Will
  1. Elizabeth said at 12:42 am on Tuesday April 27, 2010:
    And I thought it was only iPhones that had horrible service with AT&T. Feel better now that I know it's widespread with many providers and also neighborhoods. On Capitol Hill I thought service was touchy cause of proximity to the gov seat of power! Anyway that said, AT&T has a great iPhone app called AT&T mark the spot. Free. Report instantly any problem. They collect data indoor or outdoor and can make improvements. Also it's true that any provider knows when a tower is out and how many new towers r being put in and when they will become active. I have to say I hated AT&T till I got this app. Instead of feeling mad and frustrated I give them the data to get better. Try it if u have apps. ET
  1. Maria S. said at 3:56 pm on Tuesday April 27, 2010:
    I had the same issue at my apartment building in Arlington, I had to be on the balcony or by the window in order to get reception on my Verizon cell phone (and that was with the network extender). What a pain that was, one of the main reasons I choose to move. And the irony is that the whole building was wired for Verizon Fios, you would think they would have checked for cell phone reception while they were at it.
  1. Juliet Zucker said at 8:10 pm on Tuesday April 27, 2010:
    I always ask buyers or renters I am working with to check if they can get a signal/cell phone service while we are looking at a property. It is totally frustrating and infuriating to buy or rent, only to find that you cannot make or receive calls in your home.
  1. frustrated att user said at 6:19 am on Monday May 10, 2010:
    I also live in the Allegro building in Columbia Heights and have AT&T on two cell phones, and on both I get no reception inside my apartment or the building whatsoever.

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