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With cell service “as bad as you already know it is,” Williamsburg looks to improve its cell phone service

A cellular communication antenna installed on the roof of a high-rise building against a blue sky background.
Photo via Shutterstock
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Shutterstock
A cellular communication antenna installed on the roof of a high-rise building against a blue sky background.

New data highlights reception issues in Williamsburg. The city says it's limited in how it can fix the problem.

Williamsburg wants to strengthen cell phone service in the city, but says it won’t be able to do it alone.

New data illustrates the cell reception picture in the Colonial Capital, and “it’s pretty much as bad as you already know it is,” according to Chief Information Officer Mark Barham.

Service quality maps for the big three cell providers - Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile - show large swaths of average and poor quality reception around the city. The maps are the product of a study commissioned by the city last fall.

Mapping the extent of the problem, though, doesn’t map a route to an easy solution.

“The city really has no ability to fix this problem,” City Manager Andrew Trivette said. “All we can really do is try to make it more convenient and less expensive for the carriers who are responsible for the service to address the concerns.”

Barham echoed Trivette. While Williamsburg has made a goal of improving service within city limits, it is limited in how it can go about that by state statute.

“We don’t have the authority to be a cell service provider,” said Barham. “Nor do we want to be.”

Williamsburg officials will have to work with carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon in order to make headway.

“By giving this data to the carriers, then they can hopefully correct the issues that the data has shown us exist across the city,” Barham said. “They don’t have to go out and do these similar studies.”

The city had previously talked about portable cell towers, trailers with a retractable mast that can carry cellular equipment to boost service in a specific area. But the “cell-on-wheels” idea proved to be prohibitively expensive - attaching a single carrier’s technology to the mast would cost the city “in the neighborhood of $400,000 to $500,000,” said Barham.

Alternatively, Williamsburg is considering working with the company that conducted the cell service study to build out small cell infrastructure.

Crown Castle has already worked with Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary to study and improve reception in those areas.

“The agreement that we’re currently working on with Crown Castle would give them the ability to come in and attach infrastructure to city-owned buildings,” said Barham.

The idea is the city gets coverage while the company gets a cheap place to put up its small cell nodes. The company could then use the service quality maps to target areas for improvement and negotiate with the big carriers to lease space on its infrastructure.

“This would be kind of a general agreement,” Barham said of the current negotiations with Crown Castle. “They would have to come back to the city every time they wanted to build some sort of infrastructure on a city-owned facility.”

Barham said the “cell-on-wheels” signal-boosting trailers would still be an option for large events or in the case of an emergency or disaster.

In the meantime, the city plans to make its service quality map publicly available online by the fall.

“Hopefully the carriers will take these maps and take this data and then improve upon the overall quality of their networks,” he said. “But in the interim, the residents can use this data to make more informed choices about the cell phone carriers that they choose to do business with.”

And with Williamsburg’s contract with T-Mobile for service coming up for renewal in 2025, city officials have questioned whether the public maps could spur some competition among carriers.

“I think that’s just good business on their part,” Barham said. “I would not be happy if they weren’t trying to win our business as an organization.”

Nick is a general assignment reporter focused on the cities of Williamsburg, Hampton and Suffolk. He joined WHRO in 2024 after moving to Virginia. Originally from Los Angeles County, Nick previously covered city government in Manhattan, KS, for News Radio KMAN.

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