SIOUX CITY | Nicolle DeRocher, of Akron, Iowa, uses County Road K18 for various trips, including each time she's traveled to a Sioux City hospital to give birth.
DeRocher delivered her most recent child on Jan. 27. While driving K18 north of the city with her two other children in the car, she made several calls, including to her sister, hoping to meet her at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's to care for the two older kids.
The call dropped.
"It was very inopportune. It was the last thing you want to deal with, when you are on the way to the hospital to have a baby," DeRocher recalled.
Whether the topic is gossiping about the person a friend has started dating or lining up business appointments while driving, having a dropped mobile call is annoying.
As wireless phone usage has became more common over the last 20 years, more towers have sprouted on Siouxland hilltops to bounce signals. But bad spots still remain, particularly in river valleys where the elevation drops or on rolling hills.
The reception can vary greatly from place to place, depending on the wireless carrier. The two largest providers in the tri-state region -- Verizon Wireless and AT&T -- say they work hard to get sufficient towers for both voice and data coverage.
Nonetheless, Siouxlanders are peeved about weak signals and dropped calls. Even a 14-year federal lawmaker isn't immune from those frustrations.
U.S. Rep. Steve King maintains a busy schedule when he is back in the 4th District, which covers 39 Northwest and north-central Iowa counties. He'll have calls locked in for up to 10 minutes or so back to back to back, and King has instructed staff members not to bother setting up calls when he's traveling in certain areas.
"Why did you schedule me an interview with this radio station when you knew I'd be going through Mile Marker 109 on (U.S.) Highway 20? It moves a little bit, it seems like it is drifting a little bit east to Mile Marker 112. So, if you get to 108, you need to tell them, 'Dead zone coming up,' and then there's no need to dial back until you get to about (Mile Marker) 113 going east," King recounted.
King said other bad zones are a valley where the Boyer River flows near the unincorporated town of Boyer in Crawford County and the Little Sioux River Valley near Peterson, Iowa. King said the worst dead zone of all is on Interstate 29 running 10 miles south of Missouri Valley, Iowa, on land that had been under water for weeks following the historic Missouri River floods of 2011.
Many people also cite spotty service in the Little Sioux River valley near the Cherokee County towns of Washta and Quimby, then farther downstream near the Woodbury County towns of Correctionville, Anthon and Oto.
Some wireless subscribers use signal boosters in order to not lose calls in hard-to-reach places.
"Woodbury County terrain is difficult, just awful, with all the change in elevation ... There are lots of valleys. It is a hard county to get a signal in. It takes a lot of towers," said Gary Brown, director of Woodbury County Disaster and Emergency Services Department.
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Mobile phones emit electromagnetic radio waves, which go to antennas on the nearest cell phone tower. The towers then transmit the signals to a switching center, which transfers the call to the destination.
Towers often rise from 150 to 300 feet high, and they are often placed by the companies on private land rented from the landowners through long-term leases.
AT&T Wireless in February announced the completion of improvements to 120 existing towers in Northwest Iowa. That was part of nearly $175 million invested since 2013 in wireless and wired networks in Iowa.
“We’re strengthening our already-strong network to meet the needs of our customers across Iowa. We want to give our customers the high-quality service they need to stay connected. So we’re always investing in our network and will make even more improvements in the area this year," Cheryl Riley, president of AT&T Northern Plains, said in a statement.
Verizon Wireless North Central official Meagan Dorsch said she could not disclose details on the number of tower sites in Siouxland, due to competitive and proprietary reasons. Dorsch said the company is always looking to identify added spots for towers based on need.
"Customer demand for wireless voice and data service is growing rapidly. Verizon is always working to add more capacity to our network to stay ahead of the demand," Dorsch said. She cited that demand growing by at least 25 percent annually.
Towers can't be built just anywhere, with studies needed to meet federal guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, so that archeological sites and wildlife patterns aren't disturbed. Dorsch said Verizon looks at proximity to other towers, topography and local zoning requirements in making tower-placement decisions.
Brown said having sound reception service is important to emergency officials for their jobs, plus the area residents who are handling personal calls.
"I don't know if there is a kid out there under 12 who doesn't have a cell phone. It gets younger and younger all the time," Brown said.
Brown had one of the first cell phones in Woodbury County, back in 1988 when the provider was CommNet 2000 and the phone "was the size of a lunch box with an 8-inch antenna."
Brown said towers have been primarily built near cities and towns, to be near the users. He said the companies are now increasingly building towers in more rural areas, as older people who were late cell-phone adopters and others there are clamoring for better service.
"It is giving the cell phone companies the incentive to build out," Brown said.
Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges said he thankfully can't think of any bad cell reception areas in his county. Deputies need great service to contact emergency officials. The relative flatness of Union County and other areas of southeast South Dakota helps.
"We do a lot with our cell phones. I can't say we have bad coverage," Limoges said.