Cell phone service providers begin adding small cell to enhance network capabilities.
Three years ago, Summerfield resident Amanda Oaxaca was shopping at the Lakewood Walk Publix at the corner of State Road 70 and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, and she locked her keys in her car.
It was dark outside, and Oaxaca’s cellphone didn’t have a signal. She ended up walking home.
She was glad it was a short walk but was embarrassed it happened.
Her problems with cellular service have remained constant since then, with dropped calls, missed calls and garbled conversations, particularly when she drives along Lakewood Ranch Boulevard or steps outside her home, where Wi-Fi-calling is no longer enabled.
“I think service on the whole Lakewood Ranch Boulevard is pretty poor until you get to University [Parkway],” she said. “It’s awful. We have to do something. We need to function. It’s like we’re living in a one-horse town instead of a master-planned community.”
That’s why Oaxaca is hopeful the installation of small-cell technology throughout Lakewood Ranch might alleviate the problem.
Unlike traditional cellular towers, which stand about 150 feet tall, small-cell technology can be attached to existing buildings, light poles or other structures and is used to boost cellphone coverage for major wireless providers while adding capacity where there are gaps in coverage. They are generally placed 50 feet high or shorter.
Currently, Manatee County is now seeing a flurry of activity from cellular providers in the Lakewood Ranch area with more than 20 small-cell technology applications currently under review, permitted or being installed in the area.
“I am super excited to see if this will make our lives better,” Oaxaca said.
Verizon Communications Inc. is leading the way with 16 locations slated for Lakewood Ranch alone. AT&T Inc. has one planned for Lakewood Ranch, but 19 other locations are under review for south-central and east Bradenton, said Anthony Russo, the county Public Works deputy director of field operations services.
He said that the installation of the technology is a three-part process with the installation of a pole, if needed, attachment of the antenna and hardware and then the electric and fiber-optics run to the pole.
“It’s no different than a streetlight,” Russo said.
Verizon spokeswoman Kate Jay said Verizon’s placement of small cells in the area is part of the company’s overall national 4G network plan meant to stay ahead of consumer demands. She said Verizon expects consumers to use five times more data in 2021 than they do today.
“It’s about enhancing [service] in areas where users need it most,” she said. “Small cells really help with capacity. We’ve already started construction on some of the nodes, and that will continue into the end of the year and into next year. We’ll get them up and running as quickly as we can.”
She said a small cell’s range can be up to 2,000 feet — about the length of five-and-a-half football fields.
Dan Perka, the senior vice president and general counsel for Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said the company has supported improvements to cellphone infrastructure. It has leased land for four traditional communications towers — located at the flagpole at the Sarasota Polo Club (now under new ownership), on the north side of University Parkway at the east end of the road, at 44th Avenue a few hundred yards west of Lorraine Road and at Lakewood Ranch Boulevard north of Rangeland Parkway. Last year, it supported a development application by Lennar Homes to construct another such tower on property near the intersection of 44th Avenue East and Lorraine Road.
In 2017, SMR offered easements at no cost to a company that hoped to build small-cell poles, similar to those now being constructed by Verizon and AT&T, for multiple carriers.
“These poles are about the height of a streetlight,” Perka said. “If [Manatee] county staff can exercise reasonable judgment in approving the location of these poles, the system should be an asset to the community.”
Russo said Manatee County’s guidelines for such systems encourage cellular technology companies to make their technology “blend in” with the surrounding area, and providers have been accommodating.
Russo said micro-antenna systems cannot be more than 10 feet taller than adjacent poles, per Manatee County’s regulations.
Lakewood Ranch resident Jay Schwartz began a petition to improve cellular service in Lakewood Ranch in late 2016 and has gone door to door routinely since then to garner signatures and talk with neighbors about the need for change.
Schwartz said he is glad the small-cell technology is finally coming but hopes it will be more expansive than what currently is planned by carriers.
“I think it’s great it’s happening,” Schwartz said. “It’s going to improve home service for some but not for others. I’m not going to be happy until Lakewood Ranch is covered with them.”
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said most people who have offered feedback seem pleased about an improvement in service.
“It’s better than a 150-foot cell tower in a residential area,” Baugh said. “It’s the best way to go. Everyone is going to benefit.”