The city of Ione treasures its old-fashioned small-town vibe, but on the issue of cell phone service, it is ready to enter the 21st century.
More than 300 people in south Morrow County signed a petition this month calling for a cell tower in the Ione area. The Ione Community Agri-Business Organization, which circulated the petition, then sent it to U.S. Cellular. Whether it will have an impact, however, is still up in the air.
The cell phone "dead spot" around Ione and along Highway 74, which Willow Creek valley residents use to get to Interstate 84 on their way to Portland, has long been a complaint in the region, and not just among the town's residents. Companies that send workers into the area say it hampers communication and emergency responders worry that they won't be called to an accident quickly enough.
"A cell phone that works on the highway in an accident could mean the difference between life and death," said Marvin Padberg, an Ione resident and the Port of Morrow commission president.
Padberg has been working on getting cell service to the area for about a year now, ever since he was having lunch one day and ran into some workers for TansCanada, a company that runs a natural gas compression station in Ione. The workers were unahppy with the lack of cell service.
"And I said, 'We've been complaining about it for a long time,' " Padberg said
Padberg and the workers got to talking, he said, and realized that a solution to the cell phone problem could potentially be found between them. TransCanada has a large tower it built in order to transmit messages from a repeater to the compression station, which is operated by remote control. But it doesn't use the large tower as much as a smaller one it built on a butte above Ione.
TransCanada wanted another source of transmission for its station because, according to Padberg, "You need more than one source to operate that thing remotely. If something when wrong, it would be a catastrophic failure."
Coincidentally, Padberg was one of the founders of WindWave, the company that has extended fiber optics into Morrow County and throughout the Columbia Basin. In exchange for a fiber optic line, they decided, the TransCanada tower could be used for cell phone transmissions.
It seemed like a good idea, but, Padberg said, the deal has involved a long, slow process of negotiation.
Perhaps too slow for the city of Ione. On March 2, ICABO began circulating its petition. In addition to residents and a long list of businesses and organizations, it also gathered the endorsements of state Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
ICABO President Ed Rollins said the group was spurred by a report that Fossil now has cell phone service.
"We thought, 'If Fossil can get a cell phone tower, we surely ought to,' " Rollins said.
ICABO presented the petition to U.S. Cellular, which built the tower in Fossil. U.S. Cellular already has a strong presence in Morrow County, Rollins added.
Another reason that ICABO chose U.S. Cellular, Rollins said, is it has an "in" with the company; WindWave General Manager Nate Arbogast has been in discussions with some of U.S. Cellular's engineers, who agreed to visit Ione this month.
"WindWave is trying to facilitate this for the Ione community," Arbogast said. "We would be happy to work with any company, but we're excited that U.S. Cellular has at least shown an interest."
Some other companies, including Verizon, wouldn't even talk to Arbogast. It takes almost $500,000 to build a cell phone tower, he said, and to do it for only 300 or so people may not be economically feasible. Investors don't want to wait 20 or more years for a return on an investment, he said.
Still, Arbogast said placing a cell tower in the area might create political capital for U.S. Cellular because it would provide a service and improve public safety.
"We're hoping to gently persuade them to bring something to town," he said.
Arbogast said that TransCanada's tower could still be a solution to the problem.
As for the petition, Arbogast said he did not know if it would persuade U.S. Cellular to site a tower in Ione.
"If anything else, it would let them know what to expect in terms of customer base," he said. "My guess is that 300 subscribers would have very little bearing from an economic standpoint, but it can't hurt."