Even the cell phones vacation at Lake Erie hideaway

Those who summer at Lake Erie retreat flock to hot spots to make calls or text

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EAST SPRINGFIELD, Pa. -- Gayle Marco was on Route 90 near Erie one afternoon when she made two back-to-back phone calls. One was made in America and the other in Canada -- at least according to her cell phone company.

She pleaded her case before the Verizon Wireless jury with a call log and physics as evidence: It was simply impossible to cross the border in the time between the two calls -- even if her foot were a little heavy that day.

"I told them, 'I'm good, but I can't get to Canada in 15 minutes,'" she said.

Dr. Marco's cell phone and those of her neighbors in this patch of Erie County have "dual citizenship" since residents learned that they share a lake -- and cell phone signals -- with the country to the north.

Welcome to Summer City, a lakeside hideaway of 65 homes and zero bars.

At a time when cell phone carriers jockey for dominant nationwide coverage, the signals here know no border or convenience: A strong signal in the bedroom breaks up when you walk to the family room, backyard reception loses its luster when the leaves return to the trees and the difference between a call made from the U.S. and Canada can be two steps.

"It's not quite a tin-can situation, but it could be," Dr. Marco said.

Most Summer City residents travel from Pittsburgh in the summer to this off-road community, nearly 20 miles from Erie and 30 miles from Canada.

"When they speak about the dead zone, this is ground zero," said Kevin VanHonk, who comes to Summer City from Conneaut Lake.

But sometimes they leave the ground altogether to make a call.

Residents ride jet skis half a mile out onto Lake Erie to retrieve signals that can travel better with no mountains in the way.

That's what Madeline Marco Scanlon did one recent afternoon, skipping across the 78-degree water. Once she was out of sight, the house phone rang with her call.

Verizon Wireless has two towers about five miles from Summer City, but spokeswoman Laura Merritt said Pennsylvania's mountainous geography makes it impossible to provide total coverage.

"Realistically, there are things that Mother Nature has some control over," she said.

AT&T spokeswoman Laura Connor said the East Springfield area is "definitely on our radar for future network improvements."

Both Verizon Wireless and AT&T said any customer from one of the nation's many border towns with misguided international fees should contact customer service for a reimbursement.

But some experts say the issue could be fixed with a software upgrade.

Cell phone service is still a "fuzzy science," said Spencer Webb, president of antenna-design company AntennaSys of Pelham, N.H.

"There is plenty of precedence for service providers distinguishing between your home area and your roaming area," he said. "And Canada is a roaming area."

But it might become less of a problem, he said, as phones become more location-aware and can better tell when they are feeding on Canadian towers.

Until then, the Summer City community will continue to mine the area for domestic hot spots, such as Dr. Marco's front porch swing.

Dr. Marco, a professor at Robert Morris University, is something of a community matriarch here because of her generous personality -- and her wireless Internet package.

Neighbors sit with laptops under the ceiling fan on her front porch at any time of day or night. Sometimes she'll bring out apple cobbler or coffee.

They call it the "Internet Cafe."

A search for the elusive digital connection wouldn't be possible without the real-life connections seen all over this community. Neighbors share signal tips or go-karts for rides up the hill to the "phone booth" -- a patch of grass worn to dirt by the cars that sit idle while a driver makes a call.

There's no logic determining which areas get reception.

"I go up to the woods into my fort," said Brett Jackson, 12, of Mars. A canopy of leafy branches have shaded Brett and three preteen friends for years. And the fort, accessible only by go-kart and home to coyotes at night, has an added advantage: It gets cell phone reception.

"The best I've gotten is three bars, but that was once," said Brandon Muchow, 13, of Economy.

For a signal oasis, the rest of the fort is pretty low-tech.

"Most of this stuff we found in the dumpster," Brett explained.

The back of a basketball hoop has been refashioned into an airless air hockey table, with two dinner forks and a poker chip serving as sticks and puck.

The boys sit in vines about 3 feet off the ground, holding on with one hand and texting with the other.

Another known hot spot is the Peggy Gray Candies and Gifts store, where owner Jon Holliday doubled the size of his parking lot this year to about 25 spaces to accommodate the overflow of phone loiterers. Some walk there and take up no space at all; others park RVs.

He realized his space was prime cell phone real estate one morning when he arrived at work and found several people standing around his store.

"I used to get all excited and open the store right away," he said. "Then I realized they were all just using their cell phones."

But the complexities of making a call here have some forgetting what it means to always have a cell phone at hand.

Before she packs up the car to head back to Pittsburgh, Dr. Marco puts her cell phone out next to her husband's wallet.

She hasn't picked it up in so long, she's afraid she might forget it when she heads back south.

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455. First Published August 8, 2010 4:00 AM


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