RAY BROOK - Cell phone service providers are in the midst of a "massive" upgrade to their networks in the Adirondacks, based on the influx of applications and inquiries the state Adirondack Park Agency has seen in recent months.
In a presentation to APA commissioners, agency planner Colleen Parker said cell service companies are being more proactive in coming to the agency early, before they submit applications to build new towers or upgrade antennas on existing towers.
"In these meetings, staff has been encouraging the providers and their representatives and contractors to take advantage of the agency's pre-application process and get agency staff involved early so we can provide guidance using our in-house tools, like our GIS system and reviewing agency historical records," Parker said last week. "In some of these cases, staff is meeting with representatives and/or contractors in the field to help identify potential viewsheds for possible tower sites and identify what some resource constraints might be for a particular site. As a result of this, we have opened many more pre-application files for cell towers in 2013 than we have in the past."
So far this year, the agency has received 15 pre-applications for new towers in the Park, Parker said. She didn't name the companies involved in these pre-applications, but agency files show the majority are from Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
"The pre-applications we've seen so far have also involved areas all over the park, in many cases areas that currently have no cell coverage or very sparse coverage," Parker said. "We don't expect all 15 pre-applications will turn into formal applications, but the good news is having staff's input early in the process hopefully means the sites that get chosen will be, of course, desirable from the company's perspective, but hopeful they will also be sites that will be more compliant with the agency's towers policy and more compliant with the agency's approval criteria."
Parker said there's also an increase in the number of upgrades cell service providers are planning in the Park, such as replacing antennas or upgrading their service from 2G to 3G, 4G or LTE.
"In one of our meetings with the cell providers, their representative referred to the term that they had a 'massive undertaking,'" Parker said. "Staff does pale a little when we hear the word massive when related to an incoming project application, but as it turns out, the massive undertaking for the cell providers, thanks to technology, may involve a minor antenna swap, and in some cases, the new antennas might be smaller than the existing ones."
So far this year, the agency has received three pre-applications and seven submitted applications for cell service upgrades, which are eligible for amendments or general permits that involve a more expedited APA review process. More are coming, Parker explained.
"What we've heard from the providers in these meetings is we can expect this number to be close to 30 or 40 before the end of the year," she said.
APA Commissioner Dick Booth asked if the agency could do more to get the cell providers to work together and co-locate equipment on each other's towers.
"I would urge you to try to be proactive, particularly with new towers, in getting these people to talk to each other," he said. "I think what you're seeing is probably going to reflect the future. "If the technology is increasingly allowing smaller stuff, there's even more reason to co-locate these things."
Since some of the providers are coming in earlier to consult with APA staff, Parker said that may be the opportunity to discuss co-location. However, the companies have also said that federal anti-trust laws often prohibit them from teaming up, said agency planner Leigh Walrath.
"There have been various attempts to meet with the providers around one table, but the reality of it is, they are competitors, they have proprietary technologies that they're not easily willing to talk about sharing, and it makes it very difficult for them to come in together on a project site," said agency Deputy Director Rick Weber. "We try our best, but we can't mandate it."
Booth also asked if APA staff are considering tweaking language in the agency's towers policy, specifically the requirement that new towers must be substantially invisible, which Booth said he's always found problematic.
"Staff has discussions about that all the time," Parker said. "Whether there's a plan to move that forward to the board, I don't know."
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