Malibu's Endless Cell Phone Problems

Malibu has long struggled to have consistent cell phone connectivity and since the Woolsey Fire problems have intensified.  Nestled between the Santa Monica Mountains and the ocean, the City’s unique terrain presents challenges for cell phone providers and there is no easy fix. Malibu Magazine did a deep dive to define the challenges and discuss various alternative solutions. In a world rapidly moving toward 5G technology, it is clear that the City has a role in helping build Internet infrastructure. 

Written by Barbara Burke

Dropped phone calls, signal stalls and totally non-existent cell phone service are legendary problems that have infuriated Malibu residents for years, paralyzing their ability to carry on with everyday personal and work activities. Many Malibuites maintain that the Woolsey Fire exacerbated the problems. 

“I’ve had such terrible problems with Sprint because calls drop in the middle of very important calls,” said Malibuite Maggie Luckerath. “Last week, I must have had ten calls that just dropped – it has happened to me at home and on the Pacific Coast Highway – it has been a real hassle.”

Luckerath noted the problems preceded the Woolsey Fire and are continuing. Further, changing providers has not solved the concerns.

“Verizon doesn’t work at home for me and my son has AT&T and that doesn’t work at the house either,” She said. “We had so much aggravation with Frontier we switched to Sprint and now we have the problems with our current providers – it causes aggravation to the highest degree.” 

Like many Malibu residents, Luckerath complains of horrendous service.

Like many Malibu residents, Luckerath complains of horrendous service.

During and after the Woolsey fire, citizens and emergency workers and other professionals struggled with communication challenges. Now, months on, in some isolated areas such as Nicholas Beach along the PCH and mountain and canyon areas, there still is no cell service. Further, there are pocket areas where some citizens consistently experience dropped calls and many Malibuites claim that they experience such frustrations more now than they did before the Woolsey fire.  

According to cellreception.com, a constantly-updated, well-respected industry ratings site that enables a person to check reception in his area, Malibu’s area code – 90265 - gets abysmal ratings across all major carriers. Other nearby communities, including Calabasas, Topanga, get equally poor ratings. 

Malibu Magazine drove across Malibu, traveling from Getty Center to County Line and found that, although Sprint had a slight edge in East Malibu, overall, service from all vendors was sporadic. The attached maps were created and indicate red where there was no cell service and only up to one bar, yellow for areas with service between two and three bars and green for areas performing at between three and four bars. Seldom did a vendor’s service achieve a 4-bar setting and service fluctuations were experienced using cell phones serviced by all major telecommunications carriers.  

“After the fire, we had dropped calls and no cell phone service at all at times,” said Lisa Hall, the school secretary for Our Lady of Malibu School. “The school didn’t have service for a few days during the rainy season, which caused serious concerns because staff needed to communicate with parents about early dismissals and other details that one deals with when operating a school.”

Clearly, inconsistent cell service is not merely an inconvenience - it presents serious safety issues.  As one attempts to define the ongoing obstacles that Malibu citizens face as they try to obtain consistent cell service, one wonders whether it is really necessary for there to be a digital divide in America such that citizens of Malibu are the victims of information asymmetry?

There are several prefatory principles to understand when figuring out how to define and how to try to solve Malibu’s cell phone service problems. First, cell service can be provided via cell towers, or via small cells, often referred to as “nodes” and fiber that are mounted on utility poles.  Alternatively, customers can obtain cell phone service via WiFi and it can even be accessed via satellites. 

Second, cell service coverage – the area that a particular type of communications infrastructure covers - differs from capacity, which is affected by connectivity limitations attributable to the fact that signals to and from a cell tower, or via another internet service mechanism, are only able to carry so much data at any given time.

The Traditional Infrastructure for Cell Phone Service

When people think about how cell phone service works, they often think of cell towers. “Malibu no longer has cell phone towers per se,” said Adrian Fernandez, Senior Planner for the City of Malibu. “Verizon had a cell phone tower in the City center, but removed it to make way for the Santa Monica Community College and the company has since placed a temporary pole next to the Malibu Library to provide service.”

Hans Laetz has been highly involved in seeking ways to ensure that the cell phone sector is responsive to Malibu’s needs. He is very knowledgeable about cell phone vendors using telephone poles for infrastructure because he successfully advocated and convinced the State of California to bring an action before the California Public Utilities Commission against SCE and five co-defendant cell phone companies for their causing the 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire.  

Laetz, who manages KBUU, Malibu’s only radio station, has to access consistent cellular and internet service for the station. “Using cell towers in Malibu is not cost effective because one-half of the signals would go out to sea and one-half would go to canyons that are very sparsely populated,” He said. “Therefore, companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon, as well as others such as Google, utilize the infrastructure established by Crown Castle to put up cell antennas on a series of poles.”

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Instead of cell phone towers, service in Malibu is provided by a voluminous number of small cells, or nodes, that are mounted to utility poles, Hernandez said. The biggest entity providing such infrastructure is Crown Castle which utilizes small cells and fiber and partners with wireless carriers, broadband providers and municipalities to design and deliver end-to-end infrastructure. Such “small cell technology” utilizes a system of small cell nodes attached to existing infrastructure in the public right of way, such as utility poles, street lights or signposts. The nodes are controlled and amplified via computers as cell signals travel along. Similar to a cell tower, small cell nodes communicate over radio waves and then send the signals to the internet or a phone system. Small cells are similar to WiFi networks in that their coverage is limited to somewhere between 300 to 500 feet and therefore, providers have to deploy numerous devices to provide coverage to relatively small areas. 

“There are literally hundreds of these nodes in Malibu Park alone and they all need electricity.” Laetz stated, noting that reality should be addressed, given that in recent wildfires the loss of electricity affected cell phone service.

With regard to capacity, sometimes called wireless density in the cell phone industry, small cells are connected with fiber and often can handle massive amounts of data at fast speeds. 

 Laetz noted that some days, an antenna works to provide service for a consumer, but some days it doesn’t and he explained that every model of cell phone has a different built-in antenna, which can affect reception. Further, the car that a person drives can impact cell service, as can even the direction that a person is driving.

“My Ford Mustang convertible affords me better cell reception than does my Ford van because of the magnetic properties in the vehicles,” Laetz said, citing an example of factors that can affect cell service. “You’re looking at literally billions of different variables that can affect cell reception.” 

Fernandez agreed and noted that in Malibu, the notoriously inconsistent cell connections “are a function of the terrain as well as of the economics of the business, because cell phone companies often provide service to neighborhoods in areas that are densely populated, such as along the PCH, but they have a harder time providing coverage in areas that are less densely populated.” A given cell phone company might not provide good coverage in a neighborhood due to a paucity of customer subscriptions, he added. Laetz often has to go up on the roof of Pavilions Market in Pt. Dume where the station has a microwave relay and, in the past, when he was on the store’s roof, where he was positioned just ten feet away from a Sprint antenna, his Sprint phone would not work. 

“Perhaps I was too close to the tower so the radio device might have been overwhelmed.” He said. “I do not know, just as I don’t know why, for years, whenever I would go down the hill near Cher’s house, or whenever I was at the traffic light at Heathercliff, my cell phone service always went out. It is very complicated why one day, a person’s cell phone will work, but the next it won’t.”

Fernandez provided some insights about why Malibuites experience a lot of dropped calls and about why some customers seem to be experiencing more dropped calls after the wildfire.

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“When a call is dropped, that means that a person has cell phone coverage but the phone signal is not getting through consistently,” He said. “A signal is dropped when redundancy within a system goes down, that is, when there is not a series of overlapping antennas so that as a person drives along, his phone can jump from one antenna’s signal to another.”

Customers may be experiencing more dropped calls after the Woolsey fire, Hernandez said, “because, although a lot of cellular sites have been replaced, perhaps not all of them have been repaired or replaced.”   

The City is not aware of any sites that need repair, but Hernandez noted that customers don’t usually call the City to complain about dropped calls. Rather, they call their cell phone provider. Therefore, unfortunately, the City does not have any aggregated data documenting statistics relative to whether overall, Malibuites are experiencing more dropped calls after the Woolsey fire. Hernandez noted that cell phone providers are insular and do not want to share data regarding connectivity problems with the city or customers.

So, what viable options exist for customers? 

Before addressing the fact that perhaps using WiFi-based cellular service rather than traditional cellular service may be prudent, one must first address 5G - an acronym for 5th Generation, a wireless capability that implicates unchartered territory. The next generation of wireless connectivity, 5G can deliver data rates as high as 1 gigabit per second, more than twenty times faster than current networks, and equal to the speeds afforded by a fiber optic wireless service or cable. Initial 5G launches will depend on existing 4G (also known as LTE) infrastructure because underpinning 5G networks will be wireline fiber supporting the “small cell” nodes mounted on street poles or other public infrastructure. 

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The emergence of 5G in Malibu and elsewhere may change the dynamics of cell phone coverage. However, for now, issues relating to rolling out 5G are embroiled in litigation because two dozen cities and counties, with the support of the U.S. Conference of Mayors which represents more than 1,400 cities, have filed lawsuits challenging the FCC’s promulgated rules concerning 5G, both because of the agency’s limiting the collection of site rental fees and equipment installation charges and also because the FCC Rule imposes timelines on municipalities’ processing of permits to install devices. Those suits are pending in the Ninth Circuit, the federal appellate court that covers California’s federal courts. 

Further, suits filed by telecommunications companies challenging those same FCC rules have been consolidated in the Tenth Circuit, which turned down a motion to stay the FCC’s rules on January 10, 2019. Subsequently, those cases were transferred to the Ninth Circuit. Although the U.S. Congress could act legislatively to address the issues, to date, it has not weighed in on the matter. 

However, common cellular service, including 5G, is not necessarily a panacea for communities like Malibu that are experiencing cell phone service nightmares. 

Satellite Cellular Phones — An Expensive, Limited Solution

On the extremely high end of possible solutions is to obtain voice connectivity globally using a satellite phone, a technology that has been in existence for more than two decades and that first began as a government sector endeavor. The system operates via 66 low-orbit satellites that Motorola launched decades ago.  Iridium and ISat Pro, which operates on a newer system of satellites, and other companies offer this species of cell phone service and individuals and businesses can subscribe to those elite options. However, Hernandez warns that the satellite phones are a limited solution to cell phone woes.  

“A person has to be outside a building to get a satellite signal,” He said. “Such phones do not generally provide data functionality.” At least not without significant extra costs.  

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP)                                                                                 

Alternatively, it is often more effective to access cell service over the Internet via Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), a technology that uses a person’s high-speed connection as a digital phone line, instead of accessing service via cell phone towers, small phone technology, or satellite phones. 

According to techlicious.com, a website offering information about new and established technology, “all major cell phone carriers offer WiFi calling, with support for the recent iPhones and Android phones.” Readers can refer to that website to determine what phones support WiFi calling for each of the major carriers. Various other companies also offer VOIP, such as Google WiFi, a phone carrier that can be enabled on an iPhone or an Android. Unlike other phone plans, Google Fi offers cellular coverage across three other leading networks - T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular and Wi-Fi hotspots. Some Malibuites have selected this option and, when one peruses comments on various social media sites such as NextDoor Neighbor, many of them are pleased with this option. 

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Laetz also noted that cable companies are involved in the wireless service sector, citing Spectrum, also known as Charter Spectrum, as an example, and noting that company markets cable television, internet, telephone and wireless services and its customers can acquire cell phone coverage with WiFi Hotspots.

Going Forward

All in all, cellular service woes may continue to impair Malibuites’ abilities to access consistent cell coverage for the foreseeable future.  

So, is there any city-wide solution? Laetz believes that there is - the City of Malibu can set up WiFi city wide, as other municipalities have done. 

“The City could establish nodes at Trancas Market, Malibu High School, Pt. Dume and areas across the City,” He said. “At every node, there should be a generator and batteries.”

Public procurement laws would require the City to issue a request for proposals and, Laetz said, such a solicitation should mandate that the winning vendor install ten to twenty fiber optic lines travelling to the Internet backbone in L.A. 

“Having such fiber optic lines would mean that when the power goes out, lines are cut or there is a fire, we may still have internet service.” Laetz said. “This solution was recently proposed to the City of Malibu’s Public Safety Commission and some councilpersons viewed the proposal favorably.” 

Indeed, the City of Malibu’s Local Implementation Plan at Chapter 3, entitled Malibu’s Zoning Designations and Permitted Uses, has as one of its objectives furthering the goal of facilitating “the creation of an advanced wireless telecommunications infrastructure for citizens, businesses, industries and schools.”

Laetz submits that the time for doing so has come and many Malibuites heartily agree. Hernandez also agreed, noting that the City of Malibu’s Municipal Code, enacted in 2007, “encourages using small cell sites because it allows companies to use existing infrastructure and it avoids having cell towers in the city.” MM

Holly Bieler