Legislators ask for taller cell towers

State Sen. Betty Little and Assemblymen Billy Jones and Dan Stec are asking cellular service providers to erect taller cellphone towers in the North Country to increase range and reduce the number of towers needed to fully cover the area.

“We’ve seen time and time again that cell coverage is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of North Country residents, particularly as landline phones become more obsolete,” Jones said in an email. “Regardless of height, we need to be sure we have increased cellular coverage, while also maintaining the integrity and beauty of the Adirondacks.”

In this case, the politicians are focusing on the companies rather than asking the Adirondack Park Agency to loosen its rules, which require towers to be “substantially invisible” and co-locate antennas whenever possible. Towers are still approved case by case, though, and if cell providers follow these lawmakers’ advice they could pressure the agency to approve taller towers.

The request would mean the providers that build upward can provide cell reception to a wider range of customers and that other companies not prevalent in the region can utilize the towers as well.

Little gave the example of an elderly couple from Montreal who slid off a snowy Interstate 87 in January 2007 as a reason to increase cell service to benefit public safety. They were not able to call for help and were stuck in the car for hours. The man died with his phone on his chest, and the woman suffered severe frostbite. Little said cell coverage is necessary for the safety of anyone driving in the North Country, especially during the winter.

There have been similar proposals in the past that received criticism from environmental groups and residents, resulting in letter-writing campaigns and the rejection of a 10 percent increase in existing tower height in 2014.

However, Stec said he believes times are different now. He said that with the recent passage of a land bank amendment and the classification of the Boreas Ponds tract there is a solid group of legislators and environmentalists who are working together and compromising to achieve mutually beneficial solutions.

Stec said he sees three options for the North Country: maintaining the cellular status quo, building taller cell towers or building more cell towers.

With the recent introduction of a state initiative to fully cover the Adirondacks with broadband and years of requests from residents and visitors for better cell coverage, he said the status quo will not do anymore.

The Adirondack Park has also been restricted to limited options for cellular providers for tower sharing, and collaboration between competitive companies is rare.

According to Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan, instead of installing equipment lower on the tower, reducing line-of-sight range, companies have simply erected second towers next to existing ones.

Stec said there should be a written provision that requires cooperation between companies, as the taller towers will provide better line-of-sight range for all involved.

Sheehan said he was confused by the proposal, as a letter-writing campaign to the Federal Communications Commission in 2013 showed that thousands of New Yorkers did not want the height increase.

“We’re confused as to why they would bring this proposal back after so much time and effort went into defeating it in the first place,” Sheehan said.

He worries that the taller towers will rise into the skyline and no longer be out of sight.

“One of the things I think everybody agrees about the Adirondacks is that as soon as you get here, the place looks different than everywhere else,” Sheehan said. “There has been 100 years of conscious effort put in to making that happen.”

He said the Park’s scenic beauty will be an asset for its economy for centuries if it is properly protected.

Sheehan made a proposal of his own: use directional, line-of-sight cellular boosters along the road to beam signals where they would be needed. Instead of convincing cell companies to put up a tower to provide coverage to a few residents and several key roads, he said it would be cheaper and more environmental for the companies to stretch the existing signal as far as possible.

Sheehan said the funding for this project could come from the state’s $170 million in federal funding it reclaimed last year for broadband and cell development in underserved rural areas.