In the country, there’s no such thing as a smart phone, only dumb ones. You can pay a grand for the latest iPhone and still get no bars, no internet, no texts, no email—nada. I don’t know whether it’s the hills or the trees or the country air but you can turn on your fancy new iPhone and five’ll get your ten you’ll be incommunicado.
Forget inside the house, you’ll never see a bar in there, so you have to resort to a search for a signal. A signal search involves aimless wandering through the fields staring at the face of your phone, kind of like panning for gold. If you get lucky, you’ll get a bar or two which means you may (or may not) make a call. If you get really, really lucky, your call will go through. Whether you maintain the connection or not is another story. And just forget about going online.
When we have Airbnb guests, we tell them cell service on the farm is spotty. Pointing out that depending on your carrier, you might get service in the front field or you may have to walk up to my studio on the hill. Often we’ll see guests standing out in the middle of a pasture, sometimes two or three, the AT&T customer over there, the Verizon one way off to the left and the Sprint person trudging up the hill in search of a signal.
That’s why in the country you often see cars parked in odd places. Say someone gets an important call. They know from experience that they can pull into the propane company lot and continue their call. Go two hundred yards more and the line will goes dead with the “no service” light going on. You see people parked at the post office chatting away on their phones. Or pulled off into a farm entrance, or on the side of the road.
Sometimes “no service” comes in pretty handy. Say you’re on a call with someone who is droning on (your great uncle in Nebraska who can’t stop talking about the corn crop) or someone who asks you a question you’d prefer not to answer (like, “Can I bring a couple guys over to fish in your pond?”—all you do is say, “Look, I’m heading into a dead zone so I’ll have to call you back.”
Now you’ve got cover to hang up. I don’t know how many pesky calls I’ve gotten rid of by invoking the “dead zone.” Once I was talking with the agent of a famous author. I told him that I was coming up on a dead zone so if I lost him, I’d call back when I got service. He said, “Oh, you actually have dead zones? I thought (famous author) was using it as an excuse to get rid of me.”
A favorite topic of conversation in the country is what carrier gets the best signal where. People who have local businesses and have to communicate with nearby customers swear by US Cellular. But just try to get US Cellular when you’re traveling in Des Moines, for instance or God forbid, a Parisian suburb.
We were ecstatic when AT&T, our carrier, put in a cell tower a couple miles away. But even when the tower went into service, we were still starved for bars.
Having heard that Verizon had better coverage in the country, we bit the bullet and changed carriers. The salesman at Verizon assured us that we’d be good with them. Imagine our dismay when we returned home and checked our phones. While we could get one bar in the driveway, there was zip, zero in the house.
Irate, we stormed back to the Verizon store. Now customers coming in complaining about service must be a frequent experience to them so he had a ready remedy. “We can sell you a booster that works off your internet connection.” Two hundred and fifty bucks later, we were back home setting it up, carefully keeping all the wrappers and bags in case it didn’t work.
Problem was they had this gizmo that had to connect to GPS so the 911 service could locate you. It had to be near a window but our internet connection was in the bathroom (doesn’t everyone keep their router in the crapper?). Fortunately, the thing had a twenty-five foot cord so we were able to get the business end smack up to a window.
We went through the activation sequence but alas, the blue light didn’t come on. We were ready to pack the damn thing up and return it, when I noticed the little plastic box by the window had an arrow on it. Now I said it was a little box so the arrow was even littler. “But damn,” I thought, “maybe the arrow means that the box has to be pointed that way.”
EUREKA! We got the blue light and even better, when we checked our phones, we had bars, four of them! Four bars in the house! Cell service inside, yippee!
We were like blind people who could suddenly see, or like people who had said goodbye to their horse and buggy and hopped into their new Model T. We started making calls to tell people about our new-found freedom. Of course our friends in cities thought we’d gone daft, getting cell phone service at home was as routine to them as water coming out when you turned on the tap.
But now our cell phones were really smart phones—they actually worked inside the house! We started thinking about cutting the cord, saying sayonara to our landline. Who wants that dumb old thing when we’ve got a phone that not only makes calls, but takes pictures, lets you read your email, stream video and send text messages—in the country?
Because we did ads for the phone company, I had my first cell phone in 1985, before they were widespread. It was a shoe phone that weighed a good pound and a half and attracted attention every time I used it in public. No wonder, I must have looked weird walking around talking into a foot long gray box with a six-inch antenna.
Now I felt the same way as I did back then. Liberated, free to take advantage of the latest technology—and in the country no less.
So please excuse me, I have to go watch the World Series. At home, on my phone!