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Cell companies building up presence on Whidbey Island

Cell phone coverage could improve around South Whidbey if the construction of two new cell phone towers and the expansion of an existing tower are approved.

The two cell phone towers currently in the review process are proposed by T-Mobile. The company has applied to build a 150-foot tower with a 40-foot-square footprint at a Larson Road, Greenbank, address. A 120-foot pole with a similar footprint is planned near the southeast corner of the intersection of Highway 525 and Maxwelton Road.

Together, the two poles could accommodate antennae for up to seven cellular providers.

In an interview Monday, Justin Erikson, an Island County assistant planner, said the goals of specific cell phone companies would determine what type of cell coverage comes to the island.

"It would depend on the objectives of the carrier," said Erikson.

He said companies might focus on improving coverage in specific cities or towns, or in certain areas, like along highways or other frequently traveled roads.

One of the companies looking to improve coverage -- along with T-Mobile -- is Cingular Wireless. The company is asking for a permit to add 405 square feet of equipment space at the base of an existing 150-foot tower at Ken's Korner shopping plaza. The additional space would allow for ground equipment associated with co-location of a new antenna.

The new cell phone antennae could provide better service areas and coverage for T-Mobile and Cingular customers, but competing companies could also benefit from the antenna if they utilized space on such a tower.

Currently, Erikson said, there is not an easily accessible number as to how many cell phone towers or power pole "swap out" towers there are on Whidbey Island. A "swap out" tower is a Puget Sound Energy power pole that is used as a cell phone tower simultaneously. An example of a "swap out" tower is the large wooden pole near the Shell gas station on Highway 525 and Fish Road, Freeland.

"The county doesn't have an official number on that," Erikson said.

He said by reviewing past files, companies that have cellular towers on Whidbey Island include T-Mobile, Nextel, Cellular One, Air Touch Cellular and Verizon Wireless.

Erikson said permit reviews will have to be completed by the Island County Planning Department, building department, the public works and engineering departments and the health department before the new applications are permitted or denied. According to Island County Code, if a tower is approved, a cellular company has one year to complete the structure. Companies with approved permits may transfer them.

The public has a 14-day comment period on the proposed projects, a period that ends Wednesday.

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