MITCHELL — Cellphone service is getting a boost from willing residents in the tiny Eastern Oregon city of Mitchell using in-home devices called “network extenders” to increase local coverage.
Sold by Verizon Wireless, Network extenders act as mini cell towers with enough signal strength to reach several blocks. Wheeler County officials recently bought four network extenders for Mitchell — population 130 — which were installed at strategic locations around town.
Volunteers agreed to have the equipment put in their own homes and businesses, creating a makeshift wireless network that now covers most of the old pioneer settlement.
Though AT&T has an existing cellular tower east of Mitchell, it faces the wrong way to carry reception into the community. That’s led to public safety concerns for locals and tourists alike, especially after the nearby Painted Hills National Monument was named one of the “Seven Wonders of Oregon.”
Mitchell is considered the gateway to the Painted Hills on Highway 26, which logged 70,000 visitors in 2014. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, asked the federal First Responder Network Authority to help upgrade the area’s cell service to reduce emergency response times.
“As the situation now stands, in the event of a traffic accident or fire, one would need to visit a ranch, store or find the payphone on Main Street in order to call 9-1-1,” Wyden said in a letter sent June 10 to FirstNet Board Chairwoman Susan Swenson.
Greg Castleberry, Mitchell’s fire chief and emergency manager, said cellphone service has become absolutely necessary from a public safety perspective. Network extenders won’t solve the problem entirely, he said, but do at least provide a temporary fix in town.
“It’s very critical to get (victims) to medical services within that first golden hour,” Castleberry said. “If someone uses their cellphone to place a 9-1-1 call, we can respond that much faster.”
The idea started with Glenn Raber, who manages the city’s wireless Internet service. Raber bought his own Verizon Network Extender in April, and immediately saw its potential for the community.
“They actually do quite well for what they are,” Raber said. “As soon as I saw how well it worked, I thought it might be a temporary fix for the city here.”
Network extenders look like an ordinary wireless router and work by communicating with the user’s mobile network through a high-speed Internet connection. Raber said he could get service up to three blocks away after installing the technology in his home.
The Wheeler County Court agreed to purchase four more units at $250 each for the rest of Mitchell. So far, Raber said they have been well received.
“This is the greatest thing here since sliced bread,” he said with a laugh.
Trevor Humphreys, Wheeler County economic development director, said having cellphone service in Mitchell might also encourage visitors to stop and stay longer in town.
“It encourages people to come in, have a bite to eat or go by the store,” Humphreys said. “I think this is something that could be emulated across a lot of small towns.” Humphreys said Verizon has looked at sites for a Mitchell cell tower in the past, but it hasn’t come to fruition. Wheeler County’s two other cities, Fossil and Spray, both have cell service.
“It’s been so hard to get an actual carrier to put in a cell tower,” Humphreys said. “This is kind of a Band-Aid that can at least provide service to folks coming through.”
Castleberry said they are getting ready to install another network extender on the west end of town, which will provide service to roughly one mile of the highway heading that direction. A donation jar is set up at the Wheeler County Trading Company on Main Street, with proceeds to help pay for even more extenders throughout the city.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.