BEDFORD - PennDOT in recent weeks has proposed boosting cellular service along highways, with PennDOT signs and maintenance facilities carrying antennas in exchange for rental fees.
Around Bedford County, however, where major highways intersect, cell service remains all but nonexistent over wide stretches of mountainous land, and county officials' attempts to secure coverage have been largely unsuccessful, leaving persistent gaps in 911 availability.
"We have this great big section of Bedford County where you don't have cell service," Emergency Management Director Dave Cubbison said. "You get in an accident and have to walk to a farmhouse to call 911."
Cubbison estimated that 45 percent of county lacks cell service from any major provider. With the Federal Communications Commission noting that cellphones make 70 percent of emergency calls nationwide, that "dead zone" could have serious public-safety implications.
The Bedford County commissioners tried several years ago to secure coverage in the county's most isolated corners, with little success. Offers to lease antenna space on emergency-management radio towers went unanswered, they said, even with prices as low as $1 per year.
"We offered them space," Commissioners Chairman Kirt Morris said. "If someone came to us, we'd be glad to."
Representatives from major cellular providers said a range of factors determines expansion plans, including geography, terrain and perhaps the most obvious: population density.
"There are a lot of things in the background that people aren't aware of," Verizon regional spokeswoman Laura Merritt said. "You're looking at a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes before the shovel even goes in the dirt."
AT&T spokesman Dan Langan said his company would be willing to look at expansion options.
"We regularly evaluate how to further expand our infrastructure and would welcome the opportunity to talk more with local officials in Bedford County," he said.
Langan said that, from 2010 to 2012, AT&T invested more than $1 billion in its Pennsylvania wireless network. Merritt noted that Verizon boosted wireless Internet coverage last year to 4G LTE, its fastest service, around Bedford Borough and along Route 30.
But that focus on high-speed Internet and major highway corridors has left large rural swaths less lucky, Commissioner Steve Howsare said. Service maps show strong signals along the turnpike and I-99, but almost nothing in southern Morrisons Cove and much of the Pleasantville ridge.
"The problem is, they keep upgrading the technology before they get a chance to expand," Howsare said.
Among those who've experienced the limited coverage firsthand is Warren Noel, 66, of Saxton, whose late wife had suffered a medical emergency in the mountainous western reaches of the county.
Noel called 911 for an hour until he got a connection, he said.
"Nine times I tried. I finally did get through," he said. "It was hard. And frustrating."
At a July 29 commissioners' meeting in Saxton, Noel pressed county officials on a plan to expand cell service. There's little that can be done below the federal level, they answered, as the FCC regulates wireless providers.
"[Lawmakers] should turn around and say to these companies: 'You want to operate in the state of Pennsylvania? You want to expand? Well, do something nice for us. Put up a few towers in Bedford County," Cubbison said.
Cubbison and the commissioners estimated that 100 and 200 cell towers already stand in the county. With just nine emergency radio towers, government leases might make only a small dent in Bedford's coverage problem.
Merritt of Verizon said geography will likely always play a role in cell opportunities.
"When you have more hilly terrain, it's a little more challenging," she said. "People don't want cell sites every five feet, either."