Plans are beginning to take shape to enhance cell phone service and coverage on the north end of Longboat Key as part of its underground utilities project.
The Town Commission is set to consider a measure on Nov. 1 that would modify the Town Code to pave the way for Verizon Wireless to install equipment designed to boost chronically spotty service on the island, according to Town Manager Tom Harmer.
“(It would) tweak the Code so that it would facilitate Verizon and others, we think, based on state information on the type of equipment that needs to be mounted,” Harmer said.
Specifically, commissioners are set to consider an amendment to address the current dimensions listed in the Code for pole-mounted equipment.
Verizon’s proposal is to install up to nine small cell poles and antennas. The town years ago banned the construction of conventional cell towers, though some buildings on the south end of the island have been outfitted with cell-service antennas.
Separately, Longboat Key’s Planning and Zoning Board is expected to hear a special exception application from Verizon on Nov. 16.
“Once they get the approval from the town, they would then move forward,” Harmer said. “They still would have to order poles, equipment and things like that, but they acted like they could have the poles up and running by the summer.”
The smaller towers would link up with underground communications cables installed as part of the town's underground utilities project. Phase one in the south end of the island is nearing completion, as new light poles get installed. The northern third of the island is in phase two.
Harmer said town staff is also still having discussions with AT&T representatives.
“They’re on a slightly different track,” Harmer said. “They said to us before that they’re focusing on the macro-towers first.”
Harmer said AT&T would then come back to the town with plans to add small cell capabilities on the island.
“We’ve heard less from T-Mobile and AT&T (compared to Verizon), but AT&T seems serious in this conversation that they also have a plan,” Harmer said. “If you remember, we facilitated meetings with all these providers together…and we laid out what we’re doing, timing and the benefits of coming on the island.”
There are reasons the Town Commission has had discussions for months about improving cell service. One is to make sure 911 calls go through in the event of an emergency. Commissioners have also discussed the lament of more and more workers and executives conducting business from their homes. Poor cell-service can make such home work difficult they have concluded.
While 5G service rolls out in cities around the country, experts say the technology is not perfect for a community such as Longboat Key. 5G broadband works best in dense settings, such as big cities.
KCI Technologies is still serving as an adviser to the town as discussions continue with cell-service carriers. However, former KCI senior project manager Marshall Pearsall left the company in September 2021. Pearsall had served as the KCI’s primary consultant to the town and spoke before the Town Commission in March 2021.
“We still have KCI under contract and there’s a replacement,” Harmer said.
The town’s contract with KCI is not to exceed $16,300.