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In eastern Montana, cell phone dead zones are a safety hazard — but little is being done to fix them

Most people don’t think about the spotty cell service along stretches of Montana's roadways until there’s an emergency. But Hunter Herbaugh, a reporter for the Glendive Ranger Review, considered the possible safety hazards of the dead zone between Wibaux and Glendive before the problem contributed to any accidents.

He wrote a story about the dead zone late last year. A few days after his story published, a man walking on the shoulder of the road in the area Herbaugh wrote about was struck by a car and killed.

YPR’s Jess Sheldahl spoke with Herbaugh about his reporting and whether anything’s being done about the lack of service along that strip of I-94.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jess Sheldahl: Can you tell us more about this dead zone on I-94, and why it's a safety concern for people in your area?

Hunter Herbaugh: Nobody really thinks of it as a safety concern until safety becomes an issue. Of course, it's been there about as long as anyone can remember and people have just kind of learned to live with it at this point.

I don't know if you've seen the area out there, but it's very hilly, and the [cell] towers are kind of hidden behind those hill. So it just creates this nice little corridor where the signal can't get through. And like I said, not many people think of it as a safety hazard, but then we have an emergency where a signal can't get through and suddenly safety is the first thing that comes to mind.

You wrote a story late last year about this dead zone and how people weren't really thinking about it until there was an emergency situation. You called Verizon and the other local cell carrier to see what they were doing about it. It seemed like Verizon was trying to do its best in emergency situations, say for like firefighting purposes, but that it didn't seem like there was much being done to address that problem at all at the time that you wrote that original story, is that accurate to say?

I'd say so. The cell phone carrier that I talked to in that area, of course, does not carry cell phone services anymore, so they're kind of out of that game and won't be addressing the issue. So it really just falls to Verizon and anyone else that does contracts on those towers. They do do a lot of temporary measures in instances like our wildfire season here, we were told they were putting out deployable cell sites that were hopefully helping.

But yeah, long-term, permanent solutions don't seem to be coming down the pipe right now.

At the time of publication, it seemed like one of the reasons for that was because no one had really been affected in a way that was measurable by this dead zone. But then, just literally days after your story came out, the Friday after your story came out, there was a 62-year-old man who broke down on the side of the road on that stretch of dead zone on I-94. And he started walking along the shoulder of the road and was struck by a car and killed.

So pretty immediately after you pointed this out as a possible safety concern, something happened where perhaps the cell phone dead zone played a part in this person's death. What was that like hearing that news?

It was really weird because when I was talking to the police dispatcher for the original story, she had even said, you know, there hadn't been any major safety concerns caused by the dead zone. And then immediately after it, you actually have something that demonstrates just how much of a safety concern it can be, it was a really weird experience. And the timing of it, it was just it, I don't know how to describe it.

Since then, there's been a lot of infrastructure money from the federal government in Montana. There's been a lot of talk about using that money to expand broadband services, and in some areas, expand cell phone services. Have you heard any talk about local lawmakers or officials trying to tap into that money to address this problem?

I have not, but the thing about our local lawmakers is they are very conservative. So they're kind of wary about spending federal money, wary about spending any public money in general.

And that is one of the conversations I had with Steve Hinebauch, our local senator. He basically pointed out the only reason the Legislature hasn't done anything to this point is because they either have to implement some kind of tax to get the money to build new cellular infrastructure. Or they have to demand Verizon build it at their own cost.

So they're very wary of spending public funds to do that and very wary of telling a private business what they can and can't do. So it's kind of just come to this weird little stalemate and I haven't heard any new developments that would change that to this point.

A up until very recently, there wasn't necessarily an instance of this actually impacting anybody except for in a hypothetical situation. Looking forward, do you think that it's likely that this will be addressed, or is this just going to be something that as you're driving along that stretch of road, people just need to be aware that in some areas it's going to be a little bit more dangerous because you won't have that emergency access to cell phone services?

I honestly don't know if we're going to see any developments anytime soon. Of course, what happened was a tragic accident. But right now, to the people who are kind of cautious about spending the money or taxing people to get the new infrastructure built, it may just be this one accident. If something happens again, hopefully we'll see something kind of move. But right now I don't think there's going to be any major moves on that part.