Inland Cellular gets hung up on tech change | Northwest

A change in mobile network technology that is leaving some Inland Cellular customers temporarily unable to call or text when they travel outside of the company’s coverage area may soon be alleviated.

Chip Damato, executive vice president of the small Lewiston-based company, said he and his team are pushing electronic device giant Samsung to provide software updates allowing the phones of Inland customers to operate on the networks of nationwide carriers like Verizon.

Until recently, that wasn’t a problem. But the latest change in the industry that often moves at warp speed has presented challenges for small regional carriers, Inland included.

The company provides mobile phone service in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington via a network of its own cell towers. It also has agreements with larger cell carriers such as Verizon that allow Inland Cellular customers to use those towers when they travel.

The way cell towers connect to cellphones is changing. Across the country and globe, mobile phone networks are switching to VOLTE, or voice over long-term evolution technology. In essence, it’s a switch from 3G technology to 4G technology, and the switch comes with pros and cons.

One of the cons is the technology’s incompatibility with older phones — those without SIM cards or those with outdated SIM cards. Customers with such phones will either need to upgrade SIM cards or perhaps even update their phones.

But newer phones that are VOLTE capable still require action to make them work on the new technology. For iPhones, customers can simply enable VOLTE by making a switch in the phone settings.

It’s not so simple for devices that operate via the Android operating system, such as Samsung phones. Even if the phone and SIM card are VOLTE-capable, a software upgrade is required to activate that capability. And that upgrade is not yet available to Inland Cellular customers.

None of that matters for customers with Samsung phones as long as they stay within the Inland Cellular network, where they can call and text just as they always have. That is because Inland Cellular, like many regional carriers that provide mobile phone service in rural settings, is keeping its old CDMA (code-division multiple access) technology active.

But big carriers like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have largely dropped CDMA from their networks. The software updates required for Samsung devices to use VOLTE technology has to be tailored not only to individual carriers but also to the various phone models they sell.

Samsung has made the software updates available to the customers of nationwide carriers, so its customers are able to call and text using the new technology. But Damato said Samsung is only writing software updates for smaller carriers. So when Inland Cellular customers travel to places like Portland, Seattle or Spokane, their Android phones won’t work without the update.

“We are pushing Samsung hard right now to get those updates out and there could be some coming very quickly and there may be some, depending on the model, that lag behind a bit,” said Damato.

He expects software updates soon for the most popular Samsung models used by domestic customers.

“We are starting to see software updates for testing now and we will be releasing those as early as early next week,” said Damato.

When they are ready, customers will get a message from Samsung asking phone owners to update.

“It’s OK to say yes,” he said. “A lot of people see those updates and don’t do it. If they get that update they need to accept it.”

Inland Cellular is holding on to the older CDMA technology because it works better in rural settings and in the complicated topography of the region. Damato said it “bends” more and does a better job of penetrating into deep valleys and up steep hills and mountains. It also stretches better across long distances, a plus in areas where cell towers are sparse.

“The CDMA characteristics are extremely important, especially in the rural environments where we live with valleys and great distances.”

He said the company will keep CDMA viable as long as possible. But it will fade out eventually as it disappears from new phones. Right now, Inland Cellular is scrambling to acquire phones that still have CDMA technology. It is already unavailable on some new phones, such as the iPhone 14 that some customers are eager to buy. It won’t be long before it is unavailable on all new phones.

The new technology does have its advantages. When connections are strong, its calls are crisper and connections are faster. It has better bandwidth that will enable people to use their phones while also streaming data or using the internet on the device.

But Damato said cellphone users across the country will experience downsides as well. Because VOLTE doesn’t cover long distances as well or perform as well in complicated topography, coverage will be different.

“If we rolled out VOLTE to everybody and took CDMA down, calling patterns would change drastically,” he said.

Inland has added some VOLTE-only cell towers to its network and will continue to do so. Most of its existing towers are VOLTE-enabled. Damato also expects the new technology to improve over time.

In the meantime, Damato said customers can protect their ability to communicate while traveling by accepting the updates when available and by downloading and using apps such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp as backup systems. He said Inland Cellular representatives stand ready to help iPhone customers enable their phones for VOLTE and to help customers with Samsung devices update their software when it becomes available.

“We are a small fish in a big pond but we are also that company that is going to take care of our customers. We are still here. We are still a phone call away or a visit to our store away.”

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