Community members, representatives push for expanded cell phone service in Turnagain Pass

A pull-out in Turnagain Pass.
A pull-out in Turnagain Pass.(KTUU)
Published: Mar. 20, 2021 at 8:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - If you’ve ever traveled through the Turnagain Pass area, you’ve likely noticed a lack of cell phone service along sections of the highway, with a lengthy area suffering a service gap spanning dozens of miles.

Now, a group of people from several different communities is advocating for a change in hopes of improving both service and safety with expanded cell phone coverage.

“People have to rely on the good service of other Alaskans when they’re passing by, trapped in their cars,” said Michelle Weston, Chief of Girdwood Fire and Rescue, “and then drive maybe 30 minutes to cell reception to call it in.”

These advocates, including Weston – who has been trying to get some type of plan in the works for this for a couple of years – maintain the change could be the difference between a life saved and a life lost in the event of an emergency.

“First thing I’d like to do is paint a little picture,” said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “Two families, middle of winter, late in the evening, driving to and from Anchorage to the Peninsula. Someone loses control on the roadway, crosses the center line.

“They not only have to wait for someone to come along,” he said. “But then the person who comes along has to drive to where there’s service, potentially 30 minutes away. That’s before emergency responders are even notified.”

RELATED: Cell coverage, distance limit Turnagain Pass 911 service

Tim Charnon, U.S. Forest Service District Ranger for the Chugach National Forest, said any proposal to expand cell phone coverage in the area would be welcomed, adding that he believes such a move would no doubt be valued by both the USFS and visitors to its lands.

“Communications are a critical tool for maintaining public safety,” he said. “Cell phone service for our recreation users isn’t presently available. So the communication would mean that they have one more tool provide for safety while they’re out in the national forest.”

“The lack of service means delays, it means confusion, it means disorientation when multiple agencies are responding to an emergency situation,” he added. “We’re very supportive of receiving any proposals to expand cell coverage at the pass. It would be a welcomed addition.”

Currently, there are two emergency call boxes along a more than 80-mile route where cell phone coverage is intermittent at best. Heading south from Girdwood, the first is located at the Turnagain Pass snow machine parking lot. The second is located at the Hope interchange.

These two boxes are among about a dozen that have “been deployed at strategic locations along Alaska’s highways to enhance travel safety in Alaska,” according to a 2008 Department of Transportation document detailing the Alaska Iways Architecture and implementation of Intelligent Transport System technologies.

The call boxes allow motorists who can reach them to “report emergencies to 911 dispatchers at locations where there is a lack of communications.” The same document states that, “due to their cost and the inability to determine accurate usage, call boxes are not attractive options for reporting emergencies on a large geographic scale. Call boxes are more attractive at locations with known problems (e.g., high crash rates) and lack of communications.”

The challenges of a lack of cell phone coverage are not unique to the Turnagain Pass area, as there are many so-called dead zones across the state. Consider the existence of call boxes, even, at several locations along the George Parks, Glenn, and Sterling Highways; Chena Hot Springs Road; and the Whittier Tunnel, among others across the state. Several factors, however, make the Turnagain Pass area and large section of roadway particularly dangerous. These factors include, but are not limited to, weather patterns, road conditions, winding streets, high traffic and road sharing between many commuters, recreators and commercial providers alike.

“This area has just been lagging,” Micciche said, “and it’s something that absolutely needs attention with priority on public safety for the people that travel the highway. And it’s not just ordinary families. You’ve got truckers coming through, hauling doubles; some of the most challenging terrain in the state; you’ve got very steep hills, heavy snowfall. The potential for an accident is high, particularly in the winter.”

Already, Weston said, the “golden hour,” or period of time after someone suffers a traumatic injury during which the likelihood of survival is highest, is already near impossible with the time it takes for someone to even reach out to emergency medical service providers. She also said, though, that the implementation of cell service would likely reduce emergency response time by an average of around 20 minutes right off the bat, with people being able to call in reports right away.

“And someone might’ve rolled off a cliff or something,” she added, noting the heartbreaking reality that can come with delays in first responder notification. “And just being able to pinpoint where they are really helps 911 dispatchers.”

Micciche, who spoke of several recent fatal crashes in Turnagain Pass, said he’s no stranger to the area, and understands the impacts made by not have cell phone service there, as well as what it could mean to change that.

“My wife and I take off with the family to head to Anchorage during the winter,” he said, “and I just think of what that would be like had there been an incident where I know that I can’t get the help I need to for my family. So I try to put myself in the shoes of the families that have been in that position. And it’s imperative that we find solutions.”

Micciche noted the launching of several lower-orbit satellites that could help with the low connectivity in some areas, particularly from the Seward cutoff to Girdwood.

“I think we need to put our heads together,” he said, “and determine – I don’t want to say the lowest cost, because I don’t think there will be a low-cost option in that area – but it’s a problem that has to be solved.”

Along with money matters, expanding coverage doesn’t come without challenges of its own, such as logistics – consider the rough terrain and winding roads – as well as any costs, monetary and otherwise, estimates for which are yet to be determined. Along with a development plan being confirmed and price tag being determined, there’s figuring out who will pay what and when. Beyond that, service providers also have to agree to an install at all.

“Like any other process we solve in this state,” Micciche said, “first a purpose, then a plan forward, then making the plan a reality.”

The state senator, who is putting together a team to try and tackle any connectivity-related proposals for Turnagain Pass, said he has been speaking with people from across the state and even talked with several providers Friday morning about what could be done in the long- and short-term future. Service providers, he said, are “open to suggestions,” but in some cases, it’s going to be an economic challenge, in part because there is no return for the provider.

“Finding a path forward [...] over the interim,” he said of possible incoming solutions. “Hopefully, we can find a solution that delivers that service for the safety of Alaskans.”

The several service providers Alaska’s News Source reached out to Friday either did not respond or were unable to provide any new information.

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