Business

Gaps in wireless reception are closing

"Wireless communications site locationsGun Club, Oak Harbor, 3 Near Polnell Point on private land, 1North of San de Fuca, 1 flushmountFreeland Water District, 1Hilltop Terrace private land, Clinton, 1Scattered Acres Tree Farm, Clinton, 1Hong Kong Gardens, Clinton, 1 roof, 1 towerApproved cellular sites:Troxell Road, Oak Harbor, 1 flush mountKreig Construction gravel pit, Oak Harbor,1Gun Club, Oak Harbor, 1Rempel Brothers gravel pit, Coupeville, 1Wireless communications service on Whidbey, after years of mixed reception, is slowly improving. Wireless phone signals are now less likely to be lost outside the so-called zone. More towers and smaller whip antennas have been erected - the island now has 10 from north to south - and the frequency of debate over new-tower construction is diminishing. This could mean even better wireless service ahead.New innovations in wireless technology and an Island County communications tower ordinance with teeth are having exactly the result county planners wanted. The two forces have come together recently to develop some critical mass and this next year could see some service gaps closed with almost no visual impact.Regulation slowed the opportunity for closing gaps, said John Falavolito, president of Consolidated Cellular, a cell phone service provider that serves Whidbey and other Northwest communities. Falavolito said, however, that in cellular as in many other ways, the benefits of the island come with some costs.Because of our terrain we get antennas and towers. If we lived in a flat box it would be easy, but line of sight here is a little more difficult than in North Dakota, he said.We'd like things to be seamless but, there's a balance between putting them everywhere and giving the public what they need, Falavolito said. Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke said under the 2000 ordinance, it's easy to get a permit to install either a flat panel or a whip antenna. That's a slam dunk permit, Bakke said. This type of installation is popular with wireless phone companies and residents, Bakke said. The equipment attaches to the top of an existing power pole, a church steeple or the side of another tall building. From a distance you wouldn't know there was anything on the pole. It's called a flush mount, very stealth looking, he said.Companies can also do a swap out, a replacement of an existing power pole with a taller pole. The new pole can be up to one and one half times as high as the one replaced. The antenna in this case must also be the flush mount or whip style.Bakke said a company recently did such a swap out of a pole on State Route 20, just north of San de Fuca. It must have been AT&T, he said, because suddenly I'm getting perfect reception there, he said.Bakke said he is hopeful that the arrangement will have one more positive outcome for island residents. They make an agreement with Puget Sound Energy for lease on the power poles, Bakke said. Maybe they'll charge us less for power.The ordinance took a year and a half to develop and required plenty of interaction with the industry. But the county recognized and appreciated the use of cell phones and wanted them to work here. As long as they could work without proliferation of the towers residents considered visually offensive.One provision the service providers might find difficult to swallow. In a rather utopian spirit the ordinance requires that an applicant prove they made a good-faith effort to get at least two of their many fierce competitors to agree to co-locate on the same tower or pole.Another unique feature of this ordinance is its provision that the county can evaluate the facility to ensure that the latest and best technology is being used. For that evaluation the county is empowered to hire an independent communications consultant, at the cellular company's expense. So far this has not be necessary.Debra Little, Island County community development planning manager, said there is a lot of interest in establishing sites on the island and the requests for permits continue to roll in. But they don't always result in a completed site.We have a large number of applications for poles that have been sitting here for a long time, Little said. They've been processed and reviewed and we've sent comments about requirements they need to meet. Some were submitted under the old ordinance. They have to make a choice. Do they want to meet the old requirements or resubmit? Sometimes the county doesn't hear from the company again, Little said. She attributes this mainly to big changes in the communications industry that may have made applications obsolete, and offers applications from US West as an example. US West is Qwest now. There are currently ten cellular sites on Whidbey and four more were recently approved but have not yet been constructed. Some of the existing sites, especially the gun club in Oak Harbor and the Freeland water district property, represent good examples of co-location at work. The gun club site has three towers currently and one of the newly approved antennas will be going there. There are a couple more that are approvable. It seems to me that more and more are coming to the counter asking for applications, the companies are scrambling to get in here, said associate planner Scott Johns.Little agreed, but said not all are actually submitting applications.The problem is finding sites with the mature vegetation, she said.Screening vegetation is one way companies can meet the county's requirement for concealment. For any new tower that is built the carrier must provide concealment or camouflage. Johns said a whole new industry is arising to come up with concealment technology. Methods range from building antennas inside false chimneys to a company that takes photographs of the side of a building and then pastes the image over the flush mounted antenna panel.It's the classic conflict between wanting to use a cell phone and wanting to look out across rural landscapes, Johns said. Regardless of the desire for rural character, islanders are buying cell phones and expecting decent service.At Wireless World in Oak Harbor, Jeanne Lanaczyk, store manager said none of the carrier and county machinations seem to make too much difference to Oak Harbor-area customers. For the most part, the people I deal with, both professionally and personally, all have cell phones. And we do a fairly good business. People come in as new subscribers and for reactivation. Lanaczyk says. The Oak Harbor area especially has many cell-phone service reactivations because of military transfers.The story is somewhat different on the south end of the island. At Puget Sound Business Systems in Freeland, Virginia Bloom offers only Verizon's service because, she said bluntly, Only Verizon has towers on the south end. We don't want to offer a service we can't use.Bloom is not optimistic that the situation will change very soon for South Whidbey or that the carriers will comply with the county's desire for co-location of towers. Mike Broom, a public relations representative for AT&T Wireless, said the carrier has three cell sites on the island: one in Oak Harbor, one in Coupeville and one in Clinton.In addition, we have several sites in the surrounding area that provide service to Whidbey, Port Townsend, Camano and north of Deception Pass, said Broom.Regarding gaps in service areas, Broom said topography plays a big part in cellular coverage because of the physical limitations of cellular signals. High points are best, he said, but many communities dislike the idea of a 300-foot tower. Any time you have a hilly or mountainous terrain it does provide challenges for wireless coverage. We're continually looking at options for increasing coverage in areas where customers suggest changes should be made. But we have no specific plans for Whidbey at this time.Puget Sound Business Systems has learned over the years not to pay much attention to plans for new towers until they actually go on-line. We heard that Verizon was putting in a tower in Langley. It's been three years and we haven't seen it, said Bloom. Talk is cheap. "

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