Last week’s commentary on this page, entitled “Economically, a unipole is it,” prompted a visit and concerns from three opponents to cell-phone towers — Longboat Key Commissioner Gene Jaleski, former Mayor Jeremy Whatmough and resident Gus Sclafani.
They are three of 665 Longboaters supporting a petition opposing cell towers and urging the installation of a distributed antennae system (DAS).
Jaleski, Whatmough and Sclafani took issue with several specifics in our Q-and-A interview with Longboat Key resident Jim Eatrides, president and owner of Alpha-Omega Communications LLC, a wireless systems designer, engineer and installer. But their key points, at least as we heard them, were:
• That we gave readers the distinct impression The Longboat Observer was advocating for two 150-foot, unipole towers to be erected on the north end of Longboat Key;
• That we didn’t provide readers with balanced facts about the true costs of DAS, therefore giving readers the impression that DAS was not a viable solution for north Longboat cell service.
In the end, the argument over cell towers versus DAS, Sclafani said, comes down to this question:
What is the best way to improve cellphone communications on the north end of the Key?
When Sclafani answers that question, he takes into account the entire ambience and nature of the Key, and he concludes: “A cell tower is not for Longboat Key.”
The key word is “best.”
And that is the question. What is best?
This newspaper is neither for nor against a 150-foot, unipole cell tower. We understand Jaleski, Whatmough, Sclafani and the other 665 residents’ argument: They don’t want a 150-foot monstrosity near their properties. We get that. Esthetically, it doesn’t fit here. No resident on Longboat Key wants a 150-foot cell pole in his backyard.
On that, they’re correct.
But as discussed with our visitors, one of our key points last week was “trade-off.” As philosopher/economist Thomas Sowell freqently notes: There are no solutions, only trade-offs.
If improving cellphone service on north Longboat is an immediate and crucial want and need, the surest way to attract cellphone carriers to invest in the necessary infrastructure is to allow a unipole or unipoles to be erected.
On this point, cellphone system designers and installers will not dispute: A cell tower would be more economical (i.e. less expensive) than DAS. The return on carriers’ investment makes more economic sense than does DAS.
When challenged on this assertion by our visitors, we confirmed it this week with John Dolmetsch, president of BIG Wireless LLC, a Pennsylvania designer, installer and manager of regional and community wireless networks all over the country, and with Serge McAuliffe, director of business development for Seattle-based
New Path Networks, which specializes in DAS.
Dolmetsch, in fact, said the major cellular providers see DAS as “dating the ugliest girl.” Said McAuliffe:
“You’re not going to get as much coverage (with DAS) as you would with a tower. We’re not trying to force communities to abandon towers; we’re an alternative.”
As McAuliffe explained, DAS can be cost-effective under the right conditions. More on that in a moment.
If, on the other hand, improving cellphone service on the north end is not urgent, then perhaps Sclafani’s suggested strategy for DAS is the way to go. Said Sclafani: “We can get it if we stand strong as a community.”
In other words, hold out until carriers relent and install DAS.
McAuliffe said three of the major carriers may be interested in DAS — Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
But the hurdles are high. Dolmetsch and McAuliffe said significant unknowns are such issues as:
• Whether the installation of fiber-optic lines for “backhauling” data could be done above ground or buried underground, in which case the latter would add considerable cost to DAS.
• Whether the utility poles would be able to carry the weight of as many as 30 antenna boxes.
• What kind of permitting and regulatory issues would be involved erecting “backhaul hotels.”
• How Longboat Key’s thick foliage would affect the reception in the DAS antennae. Dolmetsch said the fact the antennae likely wouldn’t be above much of the tree lines could result in the necessity of more antennae.
Asked to for his best estimate on the cost of a seven-node DAS system with 30 antennae, Dometsch agreed with Eatrides’ estimate that $2 million is realistic. That compares with $75,000 for a unipole, Dolmetsch said.
McAuliffe confirmed the DAS costs as well — $40,000 to $60,000 per node per carrier. That would be $280,000 to $420,000 per carrier. Altogether, $1.26 million for three carriers, on the high side. That doesn’t include another estimated $50,000 per node for backhaul cable and cable hotel ($350,000), Dolmetsch said. Nor does it include the costs associated with siting and permitting the system.
Clearly, a DAS system — with all of its complexities — creates less of an economic incentive for the cell carriers to improve cell reception on the north end of the Key.
What’s more, given the town’s de facto moratorium on cell towers, the most economical choice for the cell carriers at this time may be to do nothing, to wait until better less-expensive technology emerges.
For the carriers, one of the motivating or de-motivating factors is whether there is enough cellular traffic and demand on the north end of the Key to justify additional investment. So far, there hasn’t been.
So maybe Sclafani is right. If improved cellphone coverage on the north end of Longboat Key is not an urgent need, residents should stand strong against a cell tower and wait for the technology to advance. We repeatedly hear Longboaters say their cell reception is “spotty,” but it’s not so bad that they are calling their cell carriers with raging complaints. We can live with what we have.
One more consideration: We’re told the town property behind the north fire station could serve as a desirable, hidden location for a unipole that could meet the town’s required setback rules. The only obstacle, however, is the site must be rezoned to allow a tower.
It’s all about trade-offs. How badly do Longboaters want improved service? Do we need it now? Or can we wait?
IS THE TOWN LEGALLY VULNERABLE?
"If the town does not rewrite its ordinance to allow a tower, legally, it is extrememly vulnerable."
Those were the words last week of Alpha-Omega Communications President Jim Eatrides.
Former Longboat Mayor Jeremy Whatmough and current Town Commissioner Gene Jaleski contend Eatrides is incorrect. Longboat Key Town Attorney David Persson has said at Town Commission meetings the town’s cell-tower ordinance is defensible.
But read Florida Statute 365.172(12)(b)(3):
"A local government may exclude the placement of wireless communications facilities in a residential area or residential zoning district but only in a manner that does not constitute an actual or effective prohibition of the provider’s service in that residential area or zoning district. If a wireless provider demonstrates to the satisfaction of the local government that the provider cannot reasonably provide its service to the residential area or zone from outside the residential area or zone, the municipality or county and provider shall cooperate to determine an appropriate location for a wireless communications facility of an appropriate design within the residential area or zone."
Try finding an area on Longboat Key where a 150-foot cell tower can meet the town’s rigid setback requirements. You would be hard-pressed.
In effect, Eatrides says, “The town has a de facto moratorium.”
In other words, if it wanted, a cell carrier could demand a tower location be determined on the Key.
That may not constitute “extremely vulnerable,” but it’s vulnerable.
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