While progress has been made on improving cell phone service in the Adirondack Park, State Sen. Betty Little says she's worried that the cost of putting up a cell tower in the Adirondacks is keeping wireless companies and cell phone providers from making additional investments inside the Blue Line.
Little, state Assemblywoman Janet Duprey and a pair of town supervisors from Franklin County met last week with state Adirondack Park Agency officials and representatives of Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T. The meeting focused on ways to refine the permitting process, reduce cost, extend coverage and improve coordination between the cellular carriers.
"It was a good meeting," Little said. "I think everybody there learned something. The APA learned from the carriers, and the carriers learned something about the process."
The APA approved 31 telecommunication projects last year, but Little said cell service in the Park is still not improving fast enough. She's afraid the cost of doing business in the Adirondacks is keeping the companies from making a greater investment.
"We worked hard to get these carriers interested in the Adirondacks," Little said. "What I heard at the meeting is the investment they have to make here is several times larger than what they have to do outside the Park. My fear is their return on investment is not going to be enough to make them continue to put (cell towers) here."
Little said the cost of performing APA-required visual analysis on a tower site was one of the biggest complaints of the wireless companies.
"One carrier said they have to provide an average of nine simulations for projects outside the Park," she said. "What they provided inside the Park on their last permit was 55 simulations. It's becoming so expensive we're going to lose their interest and investment."
To streamline the process and create opportunities for cell providers to co-locate on each other's towers, Little said the APA should allow taller towers. She referenced a 65-foot Verizon cell tower on the campus of Paul Smith's College that was supposed to improve cell service along the state Route 30 corridor but doesn't.
"The trees around it are taller than the cell tower, and it only covers the college campus," she said. "They hoped to be able to co-locate other carriers on a larger tower. But (the cell companies) are certainly not going to co-locate on a tower that's 65 feet tall.
"Having fewer, taller cell phone towers in the Adirondack Park would be better than having a lot of towers that are too short," Little said. "If you look at any ridgeline in the Adirondacks, you'll see one or two trees that stick way above the others. You could certainly duplicate that in the form of a cell tower."
Another proposal discussed at the meeting, and one that could save the cell companies time and money, was the idea of "horizontal co-location." If a carrier is planning a new tower next to an existing tower, sharing the same road and utilities, the APA could consider it "co-location" on that existing tower instead of a new project.
Little said Park Agency officials were open to discussing the idea.
"They were interested in that," she said. "They said it sounded reasonable."
APA officials, in a news release recapping the meeting, called the idea of horizontal co-location "an interesting approach to siting multiple towers on sites where taller towers would not be appropriate."
APA spokesman Keith McKeever called it a "very productive meeting," and said the agency will consider the recommendations that were shared.
"I think what we've seen over the last two years is that towers, when sited correctly, do blend in," he said. "There may be potential to increase the height of certain towers to allow for more coverage and the possibility of co-location."
McKeever also said there are several cell tower proposals the agency is considering along Route 30 between Paul Smiths and Malone. In addition to a proposed 80-foot tower Verizon Wireless is planning in the town of Duane, which will be on the agency's agenda in March, two other Verizon towers are proposed along the Route 30 corridor, McKeever said.
Little said improved cell phone service in the Adirondacks would benefit not only residents and visitors but also the state police. She met with officials from Ray Brook-based Troop B last week, prior to the meeting with the APA and the cell companies.
"They were saying their radio communication in the Adirondacks is the worst of any place in the state," Little said. "When they get to the scene of an accident or investigation, a lot of times they'd rather use a cell phone than a radio, but they can't because they don't have cell coverage. They also have laptops in the car with air cards that they could use if there was better cell coverage."
Maj. Richard Smith, Troop B commander, said the radio system in the troop has "unique challenges given the geography and topography of the region."
"The Adirondack High Peaks and the siting limitations for public-service microwave towers that we would utilize to propagate radio signals creates unique demands on the system here," Smith told the Enterprise. "We have a number of locations in the troop where radio communications are hampered by the geography and the siting of the towers."
Smith said the lack of cell coverage is also an issue for troopers.
"More and more of the communications that take place between stations and cars takes place over in-car computers through wireless systems," he said. "But because of the lack of cell coverage in a great percentage of this troop, we don't have the opportunity to do that."
Smith said state police officials in Albany are aware of the communications problems the troop is facing and are working, within their budgetary constraints, on potential solutions that will meet the regulatory guidelines in the Park.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org