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'Our coverage has been getting worse': Priest Lake petitions for better cell service

During the summer, when the population around the North Idaho lake swells, officials complain of not being able to send or receive phone calls and texts.

PRIEST LAKE, Idaho — Residents and first responders around Priest Lake are petitioning Verizon to improve its cell service there.

During the summer, when the population around the North Idaho lake swells, officials complain of not being able to send or receive phone calls and texts. 

"Our coverage has been getting worse," said Gil Tumey, president of Priest Lake's ambulance service. 

Tumey argues that the lack of coverage amounts to a public safety issue for first responders. 

"I've had people tell me that they've tried to call 911 and were unable to," he said.

According to Tumey, Verizon operates the lake's lone cell tower, which is located above Cavanaugh Bay. 

"It's pretty much Verizon or nothing," he said. 

Michael LaTourette, a year-round Priest Lake resident, started a petition among are locals calling upon the telecom company for better service. 

"We're at about 750 signatures so far in a week and a half to two weeks," he said.

Both LaTourette and Tumey noted that Verizon's service around the lake is spotty in areas. LaTourette says he's forced to use a signal-boosting device at his home to make calls. 

"If [a call] happens ten feet from our signal booster, I can't call," he said.

LaTourette said he has reached out to Verizon with the issue before, but was told that the area's population and cell usage didn't warrant an additional tower. 

"It's epically frustrating," he said. 

LaTourette argued that the influx of summer tourists and residents not only overloads Verizon's tower, but also indicates additional coverage is needed.

Jeff Connolly, the Bonner County Commissioner who represents the Priest Lake area, said he shares the same concerns with area residents.

"I would gladly sign a petition requesting Verizon work towards better service for the Priest lake area," he said in an email to KREM. "Beyond that things get a little more complex if Verizon chose to upgrade or put a new tower they would likely have to apply for a conditional use permit from Bonner County  which could end up in front of the commissioners. For that reason I don't feel that I could directly lobby with Verizon because of possible conflict of interest."

According to Tumey, Priest Lake's estimated year-round population sits at roughly 600 residents. During the summer, the population jumps to between 10,000 to 20,000 people. 

"If they can't call 911, if they can't get out to dispatch, dispatch can't call us and we can't help them," said Tumey, stressing the public safety factor. 

In a statement, the Verizon said that it was addressing coverage concerns in the area.

"We are aware that our network performance can be challenged around Priest Lake during the high season (July and August) due to increased traffic," wrote Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato in an email to KREM. 

Tumey and LaTourette noted that sparse cell coverage is not abnormal for an area like Priest Lake and that they were appreciative that the cell provider had a tower in the area. Regardless, the local men argued that the tower's tendency to become overloaded signals a clear need for better service around Priest Lake.

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