When you hear the combatants and frustrated players note that Longboat Key has been dealing with the cellphone tower issue since 2002, your instinct is to say: “Come on, it can’t be that complex.”
And it’s not. But it’s emotional. On Longboat Key, aesthetics rank near the top of the “very important” list, along with the color of our beach sand, turtles, property taxes, safety and where to eat dinner. So everyone gets it — almost no one wants a massive cell tower in his backyard.
But it’s all about trade-offs. How important is good cellphone reception? How much are you willing to pay for it? More important, if you don’t want a cell tower on the north end of Longboat Key, what are the alternatives? What are the trade-offs to those alternatives? Most important, are they economical and viable?
To understand the debate better, The Longboat Observer spoke recently with Jim Eatrides, founder, owner and president of Alpha-Omega Communications LLC and a 10-year Longboat resident.
Eatrides’ company specializes in the design, engineering, installation and maintenance of wireless- communications systems for hotels, hospitals, educational institutions and municipal-and-county governments throughout the Southeast and Caribbean. Among the networks Alpha-Omega has designed and installed include those for Hillsborough and Charlotte counties, Clearwater and Miami Beach. It also provided similar services to Sprint in San Diego and Cleveland. These are just a few of its customers.
The point is Eatrides knows the cellphone business from a technological standpoint. So we tapped his expertise and posed several questions to Eatrides to clarify the cell-tower situation in Longboat Key, as well as address the viability of different types of cellular services that we all have read about — DAS (digital antenna system) and femtocells.
From where do Longboat residents get their cellphone connections?
The accompanying map shows three circles on the south end of the Key. In the center of each circle are the cell towers attached to the roofs of the Privateer, Islands West, Longboat Harbor Towers and Arbomar condominiums — essentially about every two miles.
Verizon and Sprint have three antenae; Alltel, Nextel and Cingular have two antennae; and T-Mobile and AT&T each has one antenna.
So very simply, then, with no antennae on the north end of the Key, you get spotty or no connections. And that’s the problem.
Correct. Those customers’ phones are either trying to find a connection on a tower on Cortez Road or roaming to connect south or even across the bay.
How far can a phone roam to connect?
That depends on what’s between you and the tower. The outside atmosphere, rain, moisture, pine needles, buildings — all these things can affect your connection, even on the south end of the Key.
And the main problem on the north end of the Key is that there are no tall buildings for antennae?
Correct. Plus town zoning only allows cell towers on insitutionally zoned property, such as Longboat Island Chapel and the town’s public works facilities on General Harris Drive. But there is not enough setback space for towers to be erected at either of these sites.
Why not put towers, say, at the police or fire station?
Those properties are commercially zoned, not zoned for towers.
A lot of residents don’t want towers anyway. What about DAS — digital antenna system and femtocells? We’ve heard Commissioner Gene Jaleski talk a lot about these.
“If there is no cell tower, you have to have ‘repeaters’ that take signals from a tower and repeat them from place to place,” Eatrides says.
“Let’s take the femtocell first. Femtocell is a repeater that rides along your high-speed Internet connection through Verizon or Comcast and then back to your cellphone carrier. There are a lot of limitations to this. It’s only good for your phone on your carrier. But a bigger issue is it doesn’t give location data for 911 calls. And statistics show that 70% of all 911 calls are made from cellphones.
“Femtocells are a solution to solve an isolated problem, not for largescale usage,” Eatrides says.
What about DAS?
“It’s a more sophisticated system than Femtocells. You usually find them in skyscrapers, stadiums, shopping malls or large industrial buildings,” Eatrides says. “It distributes signals through buildings usually through fiber.”
We hear that such places as Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Buckhead in Atlanta have DAS. Why isn’t it good for Longboat Key?
Cost is the primary reason.
“DAS requires black boxes with radios and antenna to be placed in short intervals,” Eatrides says. “You have to have a lot of them because they are low power.
“You also have to be able to backhaul data back to a DAS hotel. In a 1/4-mile, you’d have to have 30 black boxes just on the north end of the island. With radios, battery backups, the power required, you’re talking $40,000 to $50,000 per location.
“And that’s not even including the fiber-optic cable you’d need to backhaul the data. That would bankrupt you,” Eatrides says. “With fiber backhaul, you’re still looking at $2 million.”
So it’s logical to assume, then, that the cellphone carriers favor towers over DAS just because of the cost. It’s clearly much less expensive for them to install towers, correct?
“At the cost of DAS, carriers aren’t going to buy it,” Eatrides says. “But here’s something else the carriers don’t like: With DAS, it puts a third-party between their network and their customers.”
Does that leave cell towers as the only economically practical option for improving service on the north end of the Key?
What kind of tower makes sense? Surely not those towers that have lots of arms and branches sticking out of them?
“From an economic standpoint and in terms of minimal visual impact on the island, the unipole is the best option. It’s the best option for visitors to the Keys and for emergency purposes.”
What about those fake palm trees or fake pine trees that are actually disguised cellphone towers? Would those work?
“They wouldn’t work on a barrier island,” Eatrides says.
Eatrides says some communities have erected cellphone poles encased in 150-foot artificial lighthouses.
But why are you recommending the unipole?
For one, Eatrides says, the unipole can accommodate multiple cellphone carriers without having to have the spikey arms.
“Aestheticically, they disappear into the background,” says Eatrides.
Note the simulated photographs on the right — photographs 1, 3 and 4. Eatrides and representatives of Ridan Industries altered real photos of locations on Gulf of Mexico Drive to simulate what a 150-foot unipole would look like in three locations — behind Euphemia Haye Restaurant, on the grounds of Longboat Island Chapel and in one of the undeveloped lots on the northern tip of the Key.
Why these locations?
“To get the same coverage as the south end, we found two locations — at the town lift station behind Euphemia Haye and the old Post Office building behind Whitney Beach Plaza,” Eatrides says.
The Euphemia Haye site would work, he says, because there are no residences within 180 feet. At Whitney Beach, however, plaza owner Andrew Hlywa expressed concern to Eatrides about how a unipole would affect future development.
“We looked elsewhere,” Eatrides says. “We found the vacant property north of the old dentist’s office. We could fit a tower there.”
What about Longboat Island Chapel?
Eatrides says the chapel property would be suitable, but it would be better to have the two unipoles near Euphemia Haye and near the dentist’s office than have just one pole at the chapel.
Says Eatrides: “If the town does not rewrite its ordinance to allow a tower, legally it is extremely vulnerable.”