Lack of cell coverage an ongoing battle for Warren County community

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North Country residents say their battle to improve cell service in the region is going nowhere. It’s a problem that has already had deadly consequences.

Kaylin Gillis, a young woman from Schuylerville, was killed when the car she was riding in took a wrong turn into a driveway. The homeowner opened fire, and Gillis was hit. A lack of service made it impossible for her friends to call 911. 

13 Investigates looked into the critical message that some say isn’t getting through.

In Stony Creek, Warren County, cell phone service is almost non-existent. The broadband internet that was installed during the pandemic provides Wi-Fi for calls. While that helps, when there’s a storm and the power goes out, so does the internet. It can take days to return.

“We already have a tradeoff living here, because you can’t necessarily get a fire station to come or an ambulance, or a police officer to come within 15 or 20 minutes anyway, and now, if you can’t reach out, you actually can’t communicate. You’re locked out from the world,” Michael Spector said. He has a neighbor who owns property in Stony Creek, but hasn’t made it his permanent home because of cell phone issues.

Spector has contacted his representatives all the way up to the federal level, he said, but he doesn’t feel like the issue is getting the attention or the urgency it deserves.

“I’ve said to them directly, people are going to lose their lives, or get into real difficulty because there’s not access during these major times,” he said.

For Spector’s neighbors, it is an issue of life or death.

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Sarah Baker and her husband and four children pitch in to take care of her mother-in-law, Lorraine Baker, at their home in Stony Creek. Because of a heart condition, Lorraine uses a defibrillator. However, it’s meant to work using a cell signal – something Sarah Baker told NewsChannel 13 is nonexistent in their small town.

“Ideally, if the device was working the way it was supposed to, it would let the cardiologist – they would be able to see the reports and be like, ‘Oh, OK, there’s something going on here. Maybe Mrs. Baker should come in,’ as opposed to just shocking her in an emergency,” said Sarah Baker.

Baker’s worry was only more heightened by news of Kaylin Gillis’ death.

Gillis, 20, was shot and killed in Washington County in April. Gillis was riding in a caravan of several vehicles, looking for a party, said law enforcement. There was no cell signal to follow a GPS.

She was allegedly shot and killed by Kevin Monahan after the group turned down the wrong driveway. It took miles of driving for her friends to be able to call 911. Cell signal could have been the difference between life and death.

Sarah Baker said she couldn’t help, but wonder how many tragedies it would take before something changes.

“I have Sarah and I have my son, but without them, I wouldn’t – I might as well be dead,” said Lorraine Baker.

13 Investigates asked Sarah Baker if she and her family considered leaving, given their grave concerns. That’s just putting a Band-Aid on it, she said.

“Let’s actually do something about it and do what’s right. So no, I have not considered moving,” she said.

Long before Kaylin Gillis died, State Senator Dan Stec (R – Queensbury) was arguing that reliable cell service is no longer a luxury, it’s a modern day right. However, it’s a right that has eluded many of his constituents.

“It’s in that public safety, that when you’ve got a device that’s controlling your body, controlling your heart, controlling your health, preserving your health, but it needs to have updates or receive signals and communicate with a central computer to provide good service, to update itself or to download data, then that’s a life-threatening situation,” Stec said, when asked about Baker’s condition.

Stec partly blames strict regulations on cell tower construction in the Adirondack Park, where Stony Creek is located.

The Adirondack Park is overseen by the New York State Adirondack Park Agency (APA). 

13 Investigates reached out to them and asked for an interview several times.

In written responses to our questions, they acknowledge the need for better service, but they argue taller towers are not the whole solution. They say “improved technology” from providers is the key to better coverage.

In response to an inquiry about Lorraine Baker’s defibrillator, the APA said, “APA has not received any telecommunication proposals for sites within Stony Creek other than one Warren County emergency services tower which was approved. APA has not denied any telecommunication projects submitted in the communities surrounding Stony Creek. If APA receives a telecommunication project for Stony Creek, staff will review the project in the efficient and professional manner undertaken for the review of all telecommunication proposals.”

13 Investigates also reached out to congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R – Schuylerville) whose district covers Stony Creek.

Stefanik sent a statement saying in part, “Increasing cell coverage and expanding broadband in Upstate NY and the North Country has been one of my top priorities since I was sworn in as a Member of Congress.”

Stefanik went on to say, “This year, I voted to pass the Advanced, Local Emergency Response Telecommunications (ALERT) Parity Act, a bipartisan bill to help bring emergency connectivity service in remote, underserved areas to save lives.”

13 Investigates also asked the APA to respond to the lack of service for people like Lorraine Baker. They say in part, “APA has not received any telecommunication proposals for sites within Stony Creek other than one Warren County emergency services tower which was approved. APA has not denied any telecommunication projects submitted in the communities surrounding Stony Creek.”

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Watch the video of Stella Porter’s story for more information on North Country residents’ fight for better cell signal.