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Can you hear me … later? CityCenter’s spotty cell-phone reception

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Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh
E.C. Gladstone

City Center may be a futuristic city in many respects — heck, Aria is even recycling its wine corks — but in one unseen aspect, it is decidedly living in the past: cellular-phone service. While tourists and locals have debated the many merits of the MGM/Mirage-Dubai World development, there has been nearly universal agreement that cell reception in and around Aria, Vdara, Crystals and Mandarin Oriental is nearly nonexistent. Even (yikes!) text messages don't go through.

"We have heard from guests who are frustrated," says John Bollen, vice president of technology for CityCenter — via e-mail. "And we understand that frustration," he adds, though MGM/Mirage employees' Blackberries seem to be among the few that work just fine.

So what's the story?

Most cell users realize that wireless-phone service isn't the same everywhere. And one of the things that can interrupt it most are large buildings full of steel columns and thick concrete (another is heavy network usage). Virtually all the casino resorts on the Strip have resolved this issue by getting base transceiver stations to boost signals, either installed in the buildings or, in some instances, located in mobile trailers (one mobile BTS sits prominently behind MGM Grand).

Bollen's team actually decided to go this system one better and install what he claims is the largest distributed antennae system in the world — actually hundreds if not thousands of little antennae all around the complex. (Are your eyes glazing over? Don't worry, there's no quiz.)

Only one problem: Even the biggest antenna provider needs agreements with cell carriers to broadcast their services. Sprint and T-Mobile signed up and got connected during construction, figuring (says Bollen) they'd get a boost in business from the construction workers. AT&T and Verizon did not. And no one can completely explain why.

For AT&T, this shouldn't be a shock — after all, in a January Consumer Reports reader survey, it was voted dead last for cell service in Las Vegas (the popularity of iPhones ironically puts an increased strain on their network). But Verizon was rated best — a full 10 points above AT&T — as it is in nearly every major metropolitan area of the US.

"Last year in Nevada alone we invested $55 million," says Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Jenny Weaver, a tad defensively. "CityCenter is on our radar screen, but I can't give you any specifics." (Other cell company reps did not respond by deadline.)

Bollen can, though. AT&T, he says, is on track to be operational this week; Verizon will finally be operational by the end of the month. Until then, hundreds of visiting businesspeople will just have to come up with a more believable reason why they couldn't hear the cell phone ring while they were in Vegas.

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