Taryn Lawrence, 44, a stay-at-home mother who moved to Southampton Village six years ago, has plenty to say about cellphone reception in the area — if you can hear her. “There have always been areas where you know your phone call will drop out,” she said. “But it started getting gradually worse.”
This year, the must-have Hamptons accouterment is neither a reservation at Nick & Toni’s nor a rental within walking distance of Cooper’s Beach, but a cellphone booster, bought through cellphone providers or places like Best Buy, and which costs $200 to $1,100, plus fees.
The Hamptons, a 30-mile stretch of hamlets east of Long Island’s Shinnecock Canal, have pristine beaches, excellent restaurants and a celebrity crowd. But the areas infrastructure fails to meet the needs of its swelling summer population, a problem that seems to have grown worse with an influx of urban expatriates during lockdown.
“The infrastructure was adequate for maybe nine months of the year, but would be stressed, even before the pandemic, during the summer,” said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., whose district includes the Hamptons.
The reception problem affects the Hamptons’ two towns, and it has gotten far worse in areas like East Hampton’s Springs, Bridgehampton, East Hampton Village, Wainscott and Southampton Village, expanding the service-less areas that the Federal Communications Commission refers to as “dead zones.”
According to the F.C.C., network connectivity can be affected by proximity to a cell tower, as well as by “network capacity and architecture.” The organization attributes dropped calls to too few or nonexistent cellphone sites in a given area.
In the past, Mr. Thiele said, outreach by communications companies regarding the building of cellphone towers was “controversial.” Several areas, like the Springs neighborhood of East Hampton and the North Haven neighborhood of Sag Harbor, have struggled with attitudes of “not in my backyard,” or so-called Nimbyism, about the unsightly structures.
Providers have acknowledged the issue. Kevin H. King, a spokesman for Verizon, wrote in an email that the company is making significant investments in the area, with more planned. “Verizon is committed to investing in the infrastructure necessary to provide robust wireless services to those traditionally seasonal communities, where wireless demand has spiked as a result of migration and work-from-home trends associated with the pandemic,” he wrote.
With more people working from home, straining the area’s bandwidth, the Hamptons must reckon with its service issues, Mr. Thiele said. He said the East Hampton town supervisor recently told legislators that garbage volume was up roughly 300 percent this year over previous years, a measure of the population shift.
Bess Rattray, 54, a writer and volunteer emergency medical technician, grew up in East Hampton and now lives near the village’s main business district. Ms. Rattray’s cellphone frequently fails in her own home, forcing her into the front yard.
Sometimes, she said, her phone will simply say “unavailable,” which typically occurs when there are “too many people using” cellphones in the area. “That’s bananas in this day and age,” she said. “In this incredibly wealthy area, and so close to the biggest metropolitan area in the country.”
The Hamptons’ lack of reliable service, she said, also presents a real safety hazard. “We all know, in the emergency services, there are places where radios and cellphones might not work,” she said. “You go off the road in one of those places and you’re sort of out of luck.”
Though some vacationers may relish being unreachable, for others it’s a matter of productivity. Nicole Castillo, 46, the executive vice president of WordHampton, a public relations firm, estimates that 30 percent of her job takes place outside of the office.
Ms. Castillo lives and works in the Springs neighborhood and said that she is often communicating with clients on the go. “On the weekend, it’s super-challenging to even get a text through,” she said. At her office, her cell reception doesn’t really work at all, and the company has had to buy boosters.
Michael Schwarz, 38, the founder and C.E.O. of the tech company Improove, Inc., moved with his girlfriend to East Hampton from New York City last June. Mr. Schwarz was aware of the reception reputation of his new hometown. “I figure: How bad can it be?” he said. Then, what he referred to as the “toxic combination” of unreliable internet and “nonexistent” cell service proved pretty bad, indeed.
After landing the opportunity to pitch to a major car manufacturer via videoconference, Mr. Schwarz awoke one morning to find that he his phone had no bars. “I ended up doing the pitch from my car, parked in front of Starbucks in East Hampton Village,” he said. “My company eventually lost the pitch, and the client specifically called out that, ‘If the founder presents from his car, we can’t be that important to him.’”
With summer fast approaching, Hamptons residents are anticipating at least three more months of diminished service. “That is the $64,000 question,” Mr. Thiele said of whether service will improve in the fall. But more people — and less service — may be the new Hamptons reality, at least for the meantime. “People are going to spend more and more time in the homes that they’ve purchased over the last year,” he said.
Ms. Lawrence is among those hoping for improvements, though she doesn’t see the situation as humorless. Her father, she said, is prone to complaining about the reception on his visits to her home and is fond of offering a not-so-helpful comparison. “I get service from the top of Aspen Mountain,” he tells his daughter referring to the Colorado ski resort. “But I can’t make a call sitting in your living room.”
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