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Longboat Key is on the verge of approving a cell-service upgrade

Nine poles, nine questions and answers regarding the proposal up for a vote next week.

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  • | 12:20 p.m. February 24, 2022
Small-cell poles dot the downtown Sarasota landscape. They were installed in 2019.
Small-cell poles dot the downtown Sarasota landscape. They were installed in 2019.
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Although a timeline for construction and activation of a small-cell network on the north end of Longboat Key hasn’t been publicly announced, Verizon Wireless is a Town Commission vote away from permission to get started.

The town’s seven elected officials on Feb. 28, in a special meeting, are expected to vote for a final time on a pair of measures that would pave the way for the project. Spotty cell service on the north end of the island has been a perennial issue among residents, but so has the possibility of cell poles or a tower on the island to rectify the issue.


What are residents’ major objections?

Based on a review of comments emailed to Commissioners and voiced in public debate at Town Commission or Planning and Zoning Board meetings, objections to Verizon’s plans fall into two general categories: aesthetics (and a connection to home values) and health and safety.

Questions over the safety of living close to such devices have been raised, even wondering if they would be tall enough to fall on neighboring homes, and residents have raised the issue of creating a new visual nuisance while eliminating another.

"It is sadly ironic that after spending millions of dollars to underground utility poles, we are going to put up nine new ones and who knows how many more,'' Gulf of Mexico Drive resident Matthew Schroeder wrote to Commissioners recently. "How that happened is a mystery to me.  We are owed a full explanation and accountability."

Small-cell poles began popping up around Sarasota in 2019. Verizon installed about 31 between 10th Street, Mound Avenue, U.S. 301 and the bayfront.
Small-cell poles began popping up around Sarasota in 2019. Verizon installed about 31 between 10th Street, Mound Avenue, U.S. 301 and the bayfront.

Ashlie Thomison, who spoke at a recent Planning and Zoning Board meeting, said heath concerns made her apprehensive about living near one of the poles. "I don’t want to see anyone get sick," she said. "I don’t want it to be in anyone’s yard if it’s that upsetting."


Why has Verizon been so rigid in pole placement?

Based on a town requirement for poles no more than 35 feet tall on Gulf of Mexico Drive and 25 feet in the neighborhoods, Verizon engineers determined nine poles were required. From there, radio frequency engineers determined the optimum locations to make the network function.

“Due to the limitation of the pole heights in the ordinance, the 25 and 35, everything really had to be tweaked and tightened up quite a bit,” said Mike Murphy, director of operations of SMW Engineering Group, a consultant with Verizon. He said small changes in land elevation had to be accounted for, along with nearby metal roofs, other utilities, height of buildings, the type of glass used in nearby windows and foliage.

“Based on the information compiled, and after evaluating site placement options, this analysis has resulted in nine strategically placed small cell node,’’ said Darwin Feliz, a radio frequency engineer working with Verizon, said adding that current Verizon service from a Bradenton Beach macro antenna is limited. “Changes made to the current design would result in additional nodes or coverage gaps that are not ideal.’’

Planning and Zoning Board member Paul Hylbert asked why moving a pole from a residential area on the west side of GMD to a commercial area across the street. Feliz said “you move one, the other one is going to be affected. It’s a domino effect.’’


What can the town do? What can’t the town do?

Federal and state regulations limit local government regulation of cell technology. Such factors as height, spacing, outward appearance and other factors can come under local control, but local governments are generally forbidden from simply rejecting a proposal from a telecommunications company outright.

Town commissioners in 2019 set guidelines for such things as color and outward appearance.

“We’re good at what we do, but we’re not (radio frequency) engineers,’’ said Isaac Brownman, the town’s Public Works Director.


How did we get here?

In April 2012, a study by TE Wireless concluded that the only two solutions to enhance coverage on Longboat Key were large-scale macro towers, which could be more than 100 feet high, or small cells.
In 2013, an ordinance adopted by Town Commissioners prohibited macro towers anywhere on the island, while leaving open the possibility of small cells. Then-Town Attorney David Persson called the commission’s consensus “a watershed moment for the town.” “For the first time in years, there’s direction as to what this town wants to do on this issue, so thank you.”


What does a small-cell network on the north end of the island mean for the rest of the island?

Verizon representatives on Feb. 15 told town leaders that the south end of the island is adequately served by macro towers  to the south, along with some antennas mounted atop condominium buildings on Longboat Key. The north end has no such buildings, and the nearest macro towers are farther away.

Improving cell service on the north end has been a Town Commission priority for years. More recently, the need for working at home has brought the issue into sharper focus. About a year ago, Commissioners relayed stories of Fortune 500 executives having difficult times conducting business from there north-end homes.

James Johnston, an attorney with Shutts and Bowen of Orlando representing Verizon,  said south-end cell service would be unaffected by the north-end network but could indirectly see gains by some of the overall network’s burden being shifted to the nine-pole small cell array.

“(Verizon) is addressing their greatest gap on the island,’’ said Isaac Brownman, the town’s director of public works. 


What will the poles look like and will there be more?

Brenda Frost, a resident of Emerald Harbor, asked a simple question. Can the proposed pole in her neighborhood be painted green to better blend in with the natural surroundings. In a word, no, she was told.

Beyond the choice of color, the town in 2019 established design criteria for light poles and small cell towers. The idea then and now was to make everything uniform in general appearance, though individual poles would obviously look different based on their function.

Commissioners set 35 feet as the maximum height for such structures along the Gulf of Mexico Drive corridor and 25 feet in the neighborhoods. They selected a stealthy black color, and they set standards for the size of equipment cabinets and electronic boxes attached to the poles.

Some residents have said they are spending millions of dollars on the town’s ongoing effort to remove overhead powerlines, transformers, poles and more only see nine new poles erected.

The town has countered that the overall improvement in aesthetics with the elimination of poles and overhead wires will outweigh the installation of small-cell poles.

Verizon’s poles would initially serve its customers only, but the poles could support at least one other carrier if both companies agree, though the appearance and height rules would still apply. “There’s not an infinite number of devices that can be attached to these,’’ said the town’s Planning, Zoning and Buidling Director Allen Parsons, adding more poles are possible, though they’d have to be 60 feet away from any other pole or streetlight. “There won’t be an ability to bunch poles.’’

Likewise, the town’s new street light poles, 41 of which will be installed on Gulf of Mexico Drive, are designed to also support small cell equipment, though Verizon chose to build its own.


How do they work?

A stationary phone connects via line of sight signal to the nearest cell receiver/transmitter on a pole. From there, the call is connected to underground fiber-optic cables to connect to the broader network. A phone in motion will connect to the nearest pole or tower, and the signal is handed off to further poles or towers as they come into and out of range. Small cell nodes are more numerous than large macro towers because of their size. 


How do we get cell service now?

Though there are cell-service antennas atop buildings on the southern half of the island, There are two cell towers that service Longboat Key: one on City Island near Mote Marine Laboratory and another in West Bradenton on Cortez Road.


What’s the difference between 4G and 5G?

Generally speaking, the difference between 4G and 5G is speed in data transfer. Phone calls are largely unaffected. The poles under consideration will carry 4G equipment, but Feliz said they are “futureproofed’’ to allow for upgrades.


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