Cell Phone Coverage

Living in the mountains presents special challenges when it comes to cell phone service and coverage areas. This is mostly due to the profit motive of the big cellular carriers, rather than technological limitations. Meaning that there aren’t enough of us living here per square mile to justify the expense of additional cellular antennas.

There is a big difference between cellular coverage and AFFORDABLE cellular coverage. It’s much easier to obtain good coverage if you throw unlimited amounts of cash at the big carriers. They can often set you up with boosters if you’re willing to pay for it. These are typically devices known as Femtocells although other types of boosters exist. This might be a great option if your employer is willing to foot the bill.

For the rest of us, the key to making the most affordable cellular choice is to understand what cellular networks are available in our particular slice of the county, and what carriers utilize those networks.

Now it might seem to make sense to include a disclaimer here that cellular service is always changing and this information might not be reliable in the future. The reality though is that technological change is very slow around here, for a number of reasons. There is one BIG change that occurred a couple of years ago though:

A new cell tower was constructed across from the ball fields off Golden Gate Canyon Road in mid-county. The county offered a pretty sweet deal to the developer, with the idea that “if we build it, they will come.”  Expecting all the big carriers to immediately place antennas on the tower, the county commissioners were surprised when only one carrier obliged: T-Mobile. To this day many locals swear that T-Mobile has no service in the county, but if you live within a few miles north of the ball fields, T-Mobile actually has the best coverage. Those living south near Missouri Lakes might not  benefit much because Dory Hill partially blocks coverage.

So with all that out of the way, here is the simple explanation of what networks cover which areas:

North county near Ned:
Verizon (the tower south of Ned that’s camouflaged like a tree)

Mid-county near Roy’s:
AT&T (the tower that you can see sticking up out of heavy forest on the west side of the Peak to Peak).

Mid-south-county near Golden Gate Canyon, including some parts of Apex Valley and Missouri Lakes:
T-Mobile (the tower that’s across from ball fields)

South county: Black Hawk and Central City up to Gilpin School and Missouri Lakes:
Sprint and Verizon (the tower up at the old Miner’s Mesa parking lot)

Now there are exceptions, for instance probably all the carriers have SOME coverage near the casinos whether it be local or roaming. But these are the networks with the strongest reach into our rural neighborhoods.

How to access these networks for the lowest cost

There is an almost endless supply of low-cost carriers out there. They operate by piggybacking onto the big networks. If you’ve ever watched afternoon TV may have heard of some of them, such as Consumer Cellular and Cricket. Those that advertise on TV usually have good service and support but are rarely the lowest price option due to their advertising budgets. The complete list of virtual carriers can be found here: Wikipedia list of MVNO’s

For those who live near the AT&T cell tower, you can switch to an AT&T MVNO such as Cricket, Straight Talk, or Airvoice. So for example, Airvoice is only $10 per month per phone.

If you live within the T-Mobile or Sprint areas, you do not have to pay their high rates, and in fact you can get a low cost carrier that piggybacks onto BOTH networks and chooses the strongest signal wherever you are! Project Fi is a low-cost cell service that combines both the T-Mobile AND Sprint networks, and I would recommend it for most people living in the southern part of the county. What’s nice about Project Fi is that it can use Wifi instead of the cell towers if you have Internet access at home. So if you have internet at home you’ll get perfect reception there. You don’t need a booster or any extra equipment, the phone itself does the switching. Service will cost in the range of $20-$30 per month per phone, including 1 gig of data monthly. More info on Project Fi: Project Fi Web Site

There is a similar service called Republic Wireless that also has wifi calling, but it won’t roam between T-Mobile or Sprint. Instead, your phone will be set up to use the T-Mobile network if you live closer to that tower, or it will be set up to use the Sprint network if you live closer to that tower. The T-Mobile network roams to AT&T and the Sprint network roams to Verizon, so Republic’s service up here is pretty excellent overall, no matter if your phone is on T-Mobile or Sprint.

Which cell carrier do I use? My wife uses Project Fi and I use Republic Wireless. Both seems to work very well around here and in the places we travel.

— Steve Schwettman