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Out of touch: Pager provider abandons area

Joshua Sebold
Staff Writer
2/3/2010

    Several organizations operating on the eastern side of the county became aware of something strange in the third week in January: Their pagers were malfunctioning.
    Eastern Plumas District Hospital Information Technology Manager Rick Boyd received a call from a doctor Monday, Jan. 11.
    The doctor explained the hospital attempted to page him the night before and he never received the message.
    Boyd tested the pager and got no response. He proceeded to test some spares he had on hand and discovered they also didnít work.
    As it became apparent that the trend had to be larger than a malfunction in the pagers themselves, he called Grace-Ann Mason, the Quincy representative for Walltech, the pager provider for the hospital.
    Boyd reported Mason looked into the problem and later told him the company that owned the pager tower that all the providers in the area used would no longer be maintaining the service.
    In a short phone interview, Mason said she hadnít received a full briefing from USA Mobility, the company operating the tower.
    Boyd said he knew Portola and Graeagle were both out of service, and he suspected problems would extend to Loyalton and Hallelujah Junction.
    The IT manager said he immediately switched the contact information for all on-call doctors to cell phone and home phone numbers, and asked those doctors to call in more often when traveling.
    Plumas County Mental Health Director John Sebold reported his department had been experiencing problems with its pagers for several months.
    He said his agency tried replacing batteries and entire pagers at first and also talked to the on-call service that receives after-hours calls and pages the on-call therapist.
    Sebold said Walltech was also contacted several times to see if something could be going wrong on that end.
    Mental Health Fiscal Officer Bianca Harrison said Mason called Thursday, Jan. 14, with information that the Beckwourth Peak tower was out of service and that USA Mobility didnít plan to bring it back into use.
    Harrison said her conversation with Mason gave her the impression there was no pager service south of Beckwourth and there might be issues in Lassen County.
    She described the department taking similar measures to those Boyd talked about at EPHC, switching on-call notifications to cell phones, telling on-call employees to call in more often and explaining to them they were expected to stay in range of cell phone service.
    Sebold said he contacted several other agencies to see if their pagers worked and many people in Quincy were under the impression their pagers were working fine.
    The mental health director wasnít convinced, saying many people only conducted pager tests in their offices and his department had experienced inconsistent pager coverage throughout the county in recent months.
    Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative Network Administrator Rob Brandt said one of PSRECís employees who was married to a county employee informed him there was a problem with the pager system. Sebold confirmed the spouse was one of his employees.
    Brandt said the tip prompted his company to conduct a pager test in Portola.
    He said all five pagers failed to get the message.
    Brandt reported the first USA Mobility customer support representative he contacted told him to replace the pagers because the service should be fine.
    ìSo all five quit at once supposedly,î he quipped during an interview.
    Brandt said on a second call he worked his way to a supervisor who said she would call back in a couple days.
    He said when he got that call, it was from an administrator who informed him the company was pulling the tower out because there wasnít enough revenue to sustain it.
    Brandt said he was pretty sure his company had tested pagers as far as Loyalton, finding problems there as well.
    Brandt said his company needed to have a system to replace the pagers because PSREC employees had to be reachable in a variety of locations.
    He said the company was looking into satellite pagers or portable radios and he wanted to share any solutions the company found with other agencies that used the pager system previously and possibly buy into a new communication system with those groups.
    Brandt said it was sad that in a small area one company that wasnít a team player could damage so many others.
    He was also upset the company cutting off the service didnít seem to tell any of the customers about the change.
    He said the groups affected should work together to make sure a new solution was based in the small-town tradition of looking after each other instead of being held hostage by an outside group.
    USA Mobility Public Relations Representative Bob Lougee, who is also listed as the Investor Relations & Corporate Communications Representative, was unaware of the issue when first contacted by Feather Publishing.
    He said his company usually didnít own towers and that this was probably a problem with another companyís operation.
    He asked for information on the claims his company was no longer providing service in an e-mail.
    After receiving the information, he sent a response e-mail, which began, ìIn a nutshell, the answer is yes, we discontinued service in November to this relatively small coverage area within our nationwide network because, quite simply, it had cost us more to provide service to the area than the revenue we received for providing the service.
    ìIn short, we had been providing service at a loss in that area.
    ìThus, given the companyís business objective to operate profitably (not to mention an obligation to our shareholders to do so), we are required to remove coverage where there is a lack of profitable demand.î
    Lougee added that ìfor competitive reasonsî he couldnít give specific details on the number of customers that would be affected by the service being shut down.
    He also didnít answer a question about what geographical areas would be impacted by the change.
    He continued, ìI would also note that we do not take the removal of network coverage lightly, recognizing that at least a few customers inevitably are impacted by such a decision.
    ìTo put this matter in a bit more perspective, paging demand nationwide (for us as well as the entire paging industry) has been gradually declining for a number of years as a number of customers have opted for various other wireless technologies, mostly cellular, which is still more expensive than pagingóand always will beóbut is less expensive by comparison than it was a decade ago.
    ìEven so, USA Mobility, as the nationís largest paging provider with approximately 70 percent of the market in the U.S., continues to expand coverage in certain areas across the country even while our overall subscriber base declines.
    ìIn fact, last year we added several hundred transmitters where there was new and profitable demand for paging services.
    ìOverall, our one-way paging network covers more than 90 percent of the U.S. population.î

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