Why Island Cell Phone Service Is So Bad This Summer

All over the island, calls are being dropped, web pages aren’t loading, and Instagram feeds aren’t refreshing as Nantucket’s limited cell phone infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the demand for data from a summer population swelling to what could be record numbers.

The phenomenon occurs every summer, but this year, anecdotally at least, it seems to be worse, especially along the south shore. Many users have reported that even with their phone showing good signal strength, cell phone data is still slow or non-existent.

“It’s always been horrible mid-island, but the overload this summer is making it worse everywhere,” said Nantucket resident Georgia Urbano Raysman.

The problem, town officials said, is a combination of increased summer population and the lack of communications infrastructure on the island. Nantucket has only one true, large-scale cell phone tower which the major carriers use, located at Eel Point. There are some smaller antenna towers, as well as the water towers, but most of the island relies upon a distributed antenna system, or DAS, which is made up of small antennas installed at the top of telephone poles.

“The volume they can handle is not the same volume as a big antenna site that you see off island,” said Nantucket Deputy Police Chief Charles Gibson, who handles the department’s communications system and has worked with the major cellular service carriers on the island. “Cellular providers on Nantucket, they will not invest in Nantucket for two months out of the year like they would do with Boston or New York City. It’s not going to happen. They try to find that happy medium and they hold their breath. Nantucket doesn’t have the infrastructure to support 50,000 people in one place at one time.”

Years ago, Gibson added, AT&T had approached the town about building larger antenna towers on municipal properties around the island. But, “the town said get lost,” Gibson said.

In the meantime, the town’s chief technology officer Karen McGonigle said several carriers have submitted applications to the town to add additional DAS sites on at least five different telephone poles. The locations include Bartlett Road and Cliff Road.

The town is in the very early stages of exploring a public-private partnership with one or more of the cellular service carriers, McGonigle said, but that project is in its infancy and certainly won’t provide any relief for this summer. “We have so many people on-island, but there just isn’t a sufficient enough year-round population to make it worth their while to do something about it,” McGonigle said.

We reached out to Nantucket Current readers via Instagram to give their experiences with cell phone service so far this summer. Here’s what they had to say:

“Awful. Been awful all year honestly. T-Mobile barely functional in Nantucket.” – Nickole Tara

“My cell Service is so bad that I write my message in Notes and send my phone by carrier pigeon.” – Lee Milazzo

“Can’t use any music app on the beach. First time ever.” – Jon Pooler

“Honestly better than last Summer since switching from Verizon to Comcast Xfinity! I have 4 kids with me every day and 11 nannies with 25+ kids with parents needing to be in contact at any given moment. Some families have taken out an additional cell line attached to their cable just for Summer use because it seems to be slightly more reliable!” – Kate at Nantucket Nanny.

“For some reason my cell and internet service craps out every time at the four corners without fail. It’s like a service death vortex that has caused me to miss several zoom dial ins while I’ve been stuck in intersections traffic. And I just shut my phone off anywhere close to Cisco because it’s not even worth trying.” – Ryan Williams

“It’s the worst it’s been in 30 years!! Even worse thank the days of the flip phone!! Just one more side effect of sooo many people on island:-(. I can’t even access cooking apps while at Stop and Suffer-the worst!!” – Kathleen Ross

“No calls at home only get voicemails ! Whenever I’m in town I get great service.” Tim Sullivan

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