WEST FORKS PLANTATION — Rebecca Blake has owned a cell phone for about 10 years, but until Friday had never been able to dial out or receive calls at home.

Like all residents here, she could only use her cell phone when she was traveling and relied on a landline when she was in West Forks.

That changed Friday when the first cell phone coverage came to this small community in central Somerset County.

“I think it can be nothing but a good thing for the community,” Blake said.

A cell tower recently installed by U.S. Cellular Corporation went live on Friday. Its signal extends about seven miles north and six miles south from West Forks’ downtown area on U.S. Route 201.

Though there will likely still be holes in the coverage, the signal will partially connect with one in Jackman to the north and Bingham to the south.

Though there are just 46 residents in West Forks and 34 in neighboring Forks, the region is a destination for rafters, hikers, snowmobilers, campers and hunters. There are up to 30 businesses in the area that could now have coverage, Pam Christopher, executive director of The Forks Area Chamber of Commerce, said.

“This has been a problem obviously for the people in the region and emergency services, but also for visitors,” said Jim Batey, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation. Referring to businesses, he said, “Their clients will be ecstatic.”

People driving by, including loggers, Canadian tourists and visitors to the Jackman area, will also have coverage. An average of about 2,800 vehicles pass through each day, said Mark Latti, public information officer for the Maine Department of Transportation.

It’s unusual for urban areas to not have cell phone coverage, but many rural areas still go without, even though there are now more cell phones in Maine than landline phones, said Phil Lindley, executive director of ConnectME Authority.

It’s difficult to determine exactly where there is and isn’t cell phone coverage in Maine, he said, because cell phone use is not regulated. But it’s clear that until now, central Somerset County has not had service.

Michael Smith, director of Somerset County Communications, is happy to have a tower that will support the co-location of emergency radio services and other cellular service providers, such as AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. Though the dispatch center has never gone entirely without radio service there, he said, coverage has been spotty at times.

“It’s a perfect location for us,” he said. “This is going to be a vast improvement over what we’ve had up there.”

The moose factor

The area is notorious for vehicle crashes involving moose. There have been a total of seven since the beginning of the year on U.S. Route 201 in Somerset County, according to the dispatch center.

Just in the 50 miles of road between Bingham and Jackman, there were 13 reported crashes involving moose in 2010 and 11 in 2009, according to information provided by the Maine State Police.

So far only local emergency services have requested to co-locate on the tower, said Richard Houde, project manager for U.S. Cellular in Maine. The company has more than 320 towers in Maine.

Other areas in Maine that still do not have any coverage, Lindley said, include the northern half of Piscataquis County, the northern third of Penobscot County, the western half of Aroostook County, the northwest corner of Oxford County and patches of west and central Washington County.

Southern Maine has excellent cell phone coverage, as does the area on either side of Interstate 95 north to Bangor, said Richard Davies, with the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, which represents ratepayers within the jurisdiction of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The greater Bangor area also has good coverage.

Cell phone signals don’t pass through buildings or hills, so the cell towers have to be put in precise locations, Davies said. Without obstacles, signals can reach a maximum of 12 miles.

The cell tower in West Forks is on a ridge to the right of the community’s downtown if one is headed north on U.S. Route 201, said Jim Hebert, an engineer with U.S. Cellular’s agent, Black Diamond Consultants.

It was the most suitable location in order to maximize coverage and it’s not in a highly visible place, he said.

“Most of that area was not covered because of the type of terrain that’s there. It’s very hilly and ledgey. You have to have a tower that’s looking down 201,” he said.

To get a construction permit, U.S. Cellular had to prove that the tower would not disrupt a deer yard area and that utility poles would not interfere with logging operations, according to the Land Use Regulation Commission, which granted the permit June 3. The tower is 1,500 feet from U.S. Route 201, off a logging road.

The 250-foot tower requires safety lighting that can “pose significant visual impacts,” the commission wrote in its permit review.

Because it is a lattice-type tower, however, rather than a solid pole, and there are no supporting guy wires, the commission wrote, “the visual impact of the structure should be minimized. Additionally, the existing site is the only location that would be suitable for co-location, thereby avoiding multiple towers in the West Forks area.”

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

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