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Poor reception plagues tech hotbed Kendall Square

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Workers focused on their smartphones during lunch at a food court in Kendall Square in Cambridge.

Kendall Square is the region’s high-tech hub, a magnet for innovators and start-ups. Yet for all their know-how, engineers, scientists, and others here are routinely stumped making the simplest technology connection: a cellphone call.

Many who work in Kendall say reception is so weak in some places, spotty in others, that dropped signals, failed calls, and stalled e-mails are frequent problems.

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“I have to duck into a conference room at just a certain angle to talk on the phone,’’ said Reed Sturtevant, a former executive at Microsoft Corp. who helps run TechStars, a start-up incubator in Kendall Square.

“My phone is my business, and missed calls are painful,’’ added Eliran Sapir, chief executive of Apptopia, a three-person operation located in Dogpatch Labs, an incubator center that offers office space to start-ups. Sapir and many other entrepreneurs in Dogpatch don’t even have landline telephones for their businesses, so a reliable cellular network is crucial for their work.

Chronic cellphone woes became such a nuisance for Sapir that he now carries two phones that operate on different carriers. He also bought a wireless network extender for his office. But Sapir says despite his workarounds, calls sometimes still do not go through.

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Wireless reception can also be spotty in other parts of the Boston area, where tall buildings and a high number of users can affect service. But Kendall workers said the area is particularly vulnerable to problems because wireless usage there is so intense. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones - all gobbling data at the same time - may overtax networks that under normal circumstances would be adequate.

Or at least that is the theory. Even in a place crowded with big thinkers and problem solvers, no one seems to know precisely why Kendall Square cellphone service is consistently inconsistent.

Major wireless carriers did not acknowledge signal problems in the area and would not say whether they have received complaints from customers. All said they strive to deliver the best possible service all the time.

“It could be a demand issue with all these people carrying around the latest, greatest smartphones,’’ said Hari Balakrishnan, a computer sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Balakrishnan has a special interest in cellphone coverage; he leads the school’s Networks and Mobile Systems group, which studies wireless networks.

He said poor service can usually be attributed to how many people are trying to access a wireless network at a given time, and the distance that users are from the nearest antenna (along with what is in between those endpoints).

Around MIT, Balakrishnan said, data service - like e-mail or Facebook and Twitter updates - is especially troublesome on mobile devices. “And I think it’s getting worse,’’ he said.

MIT said it has been working with cellphone carriers to boost service on campus, especially inside buildings. The school is “always interested in ways to improve connectivity, and [the school’s information technology department] has been working with AT&T as part of an ongoing project to enhance ‘in-building’ cell communications around campus,’’ said Kimberly Allen, a school spokeswoman.

Actually, it should have already improved, at least for AT&T customers. Last month, the carrier installed additional wireless antennas on the MIT campus to take some of the pressure off the company’s towers in Kendall Square.

Kate MacKinnon, a spokeswoman for AT&T, would not say if the company was having difficulty keeping up with demand, only that it continually works on making service better.

“It’s a constant effort to improve the wireless experience in a congested area,’’ she said. “We are throwing everything we’ve got at it.’’

Nationwide, demand for wireless data has increased 8,000 percent over the past three years, said MacKinnon.

Sprint, another wireless carrier, said it believes its service in Kendall is adequate. The company said it provides “dense’’ coverage and that the network is “performing very well.’’

Michael Murphy, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said the company has also expanded Kendall Square coverage, as part of a $297 million investment the company made last year in its wireless networks throughout New England.

Despite the assurances from wireless companies, however, users continue to report problems.

Tim Rowe, founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which provides small companies with shared space in Kendall Square, said he has experienced connection problems, but is sympathetic to the challenge facing providers.

“Because Kendall is perhaps the densest concentration of geeks, it also has to be among the densest concentrations of smartphones anywhere,’’ Rowe said. “That puts a huge weight on the cellular networks. I know the major carriers all have big plans for cellular network expansions in this area.’’

On a recent afternoon at Dogpatch, where there are no desktop telephones, a cellphone user leaned against a window in an effort to keep his connection. Another said he had dealt with about 10 dropped calls in the past few hours.

Sapir and his partners in Apptopia - an online marketplace for software developers looking to sell their mobile apps - do have an option when cellphones fail: There are several landlines in conference rooms. Or they use a service such as Skype, which provides phone service over the Internet.

Wireless connectivity was such a headache for Dave Bisceglia, a game developer who cofounded The Tap Lab, that he made sure the company’s game called Tap City - which runs on smartphones - would work in areas with poor reception.

But once Bisceglia moved his company from the heart of Kendall Square in the TechStars office to a shared office space in the American Twine building on Third Street, his cell service suddenly improved.

“Everyone thinks that MIT is going to have awesome Internet, but it doesn’t play out that way,’’ he said. His service was solid on a recent day: Calls that he made went through, he was getting e-mail, and Tap City loaded perfectly on his iPhone. But Bisceglia said he has also missed plenty of calls that went straight to voice mail for no apparent reason.

“That’s just Kendall in general,’’ he said.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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