COUNTY — Cell phone towers in Agua Prieta have been wreaking havoc for Cochise County Sheriff’s personnel in Douglas, interrupting deputies’ abilities to send information to the county’s communications center and vice versa, officials said Tuesday.

The signal belonging to the cell phone provider in Agua Prieta is stronger than Verizon Wireless’ signal, and as a result the cell phones used by the Sheriff’s Office have been rendered useless in areas of Douglas that touch the international border, said Thad Smith, the chief deputy at the Sheriff’s Office.

Computers in deputies’ patrol cars also have been hobbled by the more powerful Mexican cell phone signal, making it challenging to send and receive information from SEACOM (Southeastern Arizona Communications Center), said Smith and Sheriff’s Commander Tom Alinen.

The fiasco has forced Sheriff’s patrols in Douglas to return to “the old days” by sending and receiving information via radio, Alinen said. Not only is that more time consuming, it’s not secure, Smith and Alinen said.

“Everything is being done the old way — by radio,” Alinen told the Herald/Review Tuesday. “Our Douglas patrol folks are the ones who are experiencing that. They have to rely on the radio like in the old days.”

The problem has been going on for about two months, Smith said.

“The guys and gals would get down near the border and they’d get a message on their cell phones saying they were now making international calls,” Smith said. “Devices try to connect to the strongest signal. It’s a stronger signal from the Mexican cell phone provider.”

“They (Sheriff’s personnel) can’t use their cell phones because it rides our costs way up,” Smith added. “If I saw that on my phone, I wouldn’t make a call.”

Additionally, the computer assisted dispatch, or CAD system, was unable to connect, or was taking longer to connect, with Sheriff personnel’s mobile computers. That affected information on everything from a deputy’s location on a call for service, to a deputy relaying a licence plate number from a traffic stop.

“They were trying to send information to SEACOM from computers in their cars and sometimes it was taking hours because the computer was not connecting and updating (information),” Smith said.

According to Verizon Wireless’s website, several wireless subscribers along the southwest border of the U.S. — San Diego to El Paso — have been complaining about the same problem.

Verizon officials responded to those complaints on their website in September and October 2019.

“A wireless operator in Mexico, Altan, launched service along the border recently in the same spectrum band as Verizon. This is causing interference for some of our wireless customers — especially those closest to the border. We are working with the FCC, the Mexican Government and Altan to resolve this issue as soon as possible.”

Alinen said the Sheriff’s Office is waiting to hear from Verizon Wireless in Tucson on a possible resolution.

“It will be between Verizon, the cell phone provider (in Mexico) and the Mexican government,” Alinen said.

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