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Cell tower dearth is blessing, curse

Two cellular phone towers at Hong Kong Gardens in Clinton route much of the waterside cell traffic at the south end of Whidbey Island. But between Clinton and Greenbank, there are large “dead spots” in cellular coverage due to a lack of towers. - Matt Johnson
Two cellular phone towers at Hong Kong Gardens in Clinton route much of the waterside cell traffic at the south end of Whidbey Island. But between Clinton and Greenbank, there are large “dead spots” in cellular coverage due to a lack of towers.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

When Sprint PCS failed to get a permit earlier

this fall to build a 150-foot cellular communications tower on Swede Hill Road,

people in the neighborhood who formed a group to oppose the structure's

construction were overjoyed.

"I don't know how much influence this group of

neighbors had," said Steve Eward, who is a member of Citizens Against Unwanted

Towers in Our Neighborhood, or CAUTION. "We're not really welcoming the cellular

providers the way they would like."

Though the group opposed the towers for

reasons related to health, animal habitat and aesthetics, it was an Island County

ordinance that was ultimately responsible for the permit's failure. Written as

one of the most restrictive cell tower standards in the state, the ordinance

limits the height of towers, specifies how much unused land must surround them

and sets standards for tower appearance that forces cellular providers to do

almost everything they can to disguise them.

While all of this is good for

people who do not like the towers for a variety of reasons including their

microwave transmissions, fewer towers means poor cell phone reception on Whidbey

Island. Though there are six active permits for cell towers and antennae of

various shapes and sizes in process at the Island County Planning Department, few

of them are making it through. That is bad news for cell phone users and for

landowners who stand to earn about $700 a month in rental fees from companies

such as Sprint.

Jeremiah Ray, a Cultus Bay area land owner, said he has been

trying to get a tower built on his land for five years. While it is Sprint who

has to suffer through the permitting process, Ray said he and his wife could use

the rental income to supplement the Social Security they plan to live on when

they retire in a few years.

While he said he does understand the arguments

against the towers, he said it is obvious islanders are not, for the most part,

making the choice to do without them. People are still using cell phones and they

do expect service.

"Either people on the island want cell phones or they don't

want cell phones," he said.

Ray also said he believes cell phones are no longer

just a luxury in the aftermath of Sept. 11. They are a necessary part of the

nation's communication network.

That is true when it comes to county-wide law

enforcement. Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said his deputies have been using

the phones for several years because they are more reliable and more private than

radios in many places on the island. For less than the cost of a single deputy,

the sheriff's office outfits all of its field staff with the phones. Having them

allows deputies and detectives to handle many calls for service over the phone

from the car, rather than responding to every call and thinning agency's physical

coverage.

"We couldn't live without them," Hawley said.

He said his people

know where the holes in cell phone reception are on the island and often have to

drive out of areas south of Greenbank to make a call. The holes also make the

agency unable to use portable computers in patrol cars, computers that could

further speed deputies' work.

One such hole was almost a life-threatening

problem this week. When a young boy was struck by a car on Brooks Hill Road

Tuesday, a witness to the accident was unable to call 911. There was no reception

on her phone in that area.

Currently, there are about 10 cellular installations

of various types covering the length of the island. Reception is often best near

the water, where cell towers on the mainland are able to pick up and transmit

phone calls.

Reception varies from company to company. Nextel phone retailer

Scott Lincoln said the phones he sells out of his Clinton computer business are

more reliable than those served by some other companies. But, they do have their

limitations. In some hilly, treed areas, the phones have no reception at

all.

Chris Miller, a Seattle-area architect who helps Sprint PCS get tower

permits in Island County, said earlier this month that Sprint is trying to

improve the situation by applying to build five new cell towers between

Coupeville and Clinton. Although he said Sprint has designed a system that

requires the construction of as few towers as possible, the company still needs

150-foot structures to clear the tree height in most places.

Getting the

permits in Island County, which MIller considers restrictive on its tower policy,

is not going well.

"All the carriers are having the same issues," he

said.

Sprint has little choice but to keep trying. Miller said the Federal

Communications Commission requires cellular companies to provide the best service

possible within their system range. They have that obligation on Whidbey Island.

Plus, the company's customer service department is "bombarded" with complaints

from customers who do not get reliable cell service.

If the cellular companies

want to play ball in Island County's limited cell phone park, they may have to

build structures that do not look like cell towers. The county's ordinance

encourages the construction of towers that also serve as power poles, and the

installation of small "whip" antennals. In an interview earlier this year, Island

County Planning Director Phil Bakke said permits for these alternative types of

cell receivers and transmitters are "a slam dunk."

Since 1990, the Island

County Planning Department has handled about 40 permits for cellular receiving

and transmitting installations. Companies who have made the applications include

Sprint PCS, Quest, VoiceStream, and SBA.

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