THE BUZZ III: Can You Hear Me Now?

By on March 23, 2016

Verizon warns town it is headed for a coverage crisis.

160323Buzz2JACKSON HOLE, WY – Wireless carriers have been at odds with government leaders for years over placement of cell towers they say are necessary but electeds fear are unsightly. Policy roadblocks and outright application denial have frustrated both Verizon and AT&T representatives. The latest development in the cell saga is Verizon’s hardline pitch to add towers in downtown Jackson, where the carrier’s representatives say they have been unable to meet demand.

“Verizon is extremely concerned about the very urgent need to improve coverage in Jackson,” Irene Cooke said. Cooke performs site acquisition for Verizon Wireless. “We started this process in 2013 and still don’t have an additional site. Jackson is a world-class resort and it needs world-class service to meet the needs of visitors and users in the 21st Century.”

Acknowledging coverage gaps throughout the valley, Verizon reps are more concerned with peak load demands in downtown Jackson. Cell towers were pounded last summer by Verizon customers, causing laggy speeds and spotty service. This summer will be even worse, they said.

Verizon’s Travis Griffin explained that 3G and 4G-LTE service is not like the coverage of old where a cell tower could cover a 10-mile radius. “4G means you have to get closer, often within a mile or even within a quarter-mile,” he said. “We are completely reacting to customer demand. Cell sites in Jackson are maxed out today.”

Demand is expected to increase 650 percent between 2013 and 2018, according to Verizon estimates. Users’ expectations for services like real-time mapping, video streaming, and teleconferencing are creating a strain on bandwidth to the point where Verizon is asking for not just one additional tower site in town, but three.

Verizon spokesperson Meagan Dorsch said, “Demand for wireless voice and data service is growing rapidly—between 25 and 50 percent each year. CTIA, the wireless industry association, released a study that showed Americans used three times as much wireless data service in 2014 than they did in 2012.”

“Capacity is beyond maxed between June and September,” Griffin said. “Growth has outpaced our capacity. We can’t meet demand today. Some users are already experiencing trouble loading webpages. It will be very bad if you won’t be able to make a phone call or use 911.”

Police chief Todd Smith said his department, as well as the Sheriff’s Office, relies on Verizon for their communications and onboard computer links with the dispatch database. He said he has not noticed a degradation in service but on occasion, like at the recent JHMR concert where an estimated 15,000 gathered for the event, speeds are noticeably slower.

Where and when?

Jackson principle planner Paul Anthony has been working directly with Verizon authorities to help them find suitable locations for towers. AT&T was denied a permit two years ago for a tower to be hidden in a church steeple in Indian Springs by the neighborhood’s HOA. Verizon was shot down by the Center for the Arts board for a proposed tower atop that building. They were also shut out from sharing AT&T’s new rodeo grounds tower.

“At some point we will have to say yes to some of these facilities. We can’t continually say no,” Anthony said.

Wireless carriers have federal clout. If push comes to shove, and communities like Jackson Hole continue to make life difficult for them, they may eventually play their ace card: FCC regulations.

Anthony speculated Verizon lawyers were probably looking into their options, viewing local ordinances and regulations here as “relatively strict.” He added that recent changes in town regs drastically reduced the areas where potential cell towers could be built.

“The FCC requires reasons for denial in writing,” Griffin explained. “Essentially a town cannot prohibit a provider from building cell sites but you can direct where you want them.”

Griffin suggested town officials get their act in gear while they are still able to exercise some control over where towers go and what they’ll look like. New zoning regulations in town have created PSP (Public, Semi-Public) zones where the mostly government-owned parcels would make suitable locations for tower construction.

Verizon reps said they have been talking with Ryan Stanley about a site at the base of Snow King. They would also be extremely interested in revisiting a site on top of the parking structure where they were previously rebuffed.

Councilors Bob Lenz and Jim Stanford have opposed cell towers in the past on the grounds that RF emissions are harmful to humans. Stanford, in particular, is still adamant about conceivable threats to public health.

“I continue to have reservations about putting a cell tower on virtually every block. I didn’t move to Wyoming to be bombarded by 18 sets of radio waves at every second,” Stanford said. “I know the Federal Communications Commission says I’m safe, but I don’t like being boxed in [on all sides by towers]. We are gaining the convenience of being able to stream anywhere, but I really feel the appetite here is insatiable. Maybe we need to temper our level of demand and expectations.”

Stanford also questioned whether service was truly being affected by volume. He said he has never experienced any problems downloading Nathaniel Rateliff videos in HD, for instance.

Lenz and Mayor Sara Flitner seem amenable to looking again at the parking garage as a potential site for a Verizon tower. Meanwhile, Anthony is working with Verizon reps to find suitable locations for temporary mobile tower sites called COWs (Cell on Wheels) that will need to be in place for this summer while permanent locations are being identified. PJH

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