Panel: Residents should brace to trade aesthetics for cell coverage

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 1, 2011 

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Unless Hilton Head Island wants to become a "communications backwater," residents must get accustomed to seeing more cell towers in their backyards, a task force of telecommunications experts said Tuesday. An explosion of wireless data services is available today and growing exponentially. However, the amount of available spectrum and the need for more towers on the island to close coverage gaps have not changed, task force chairman Jim Collett told a Town Council committee.

Collett worked in real estate and network-planning for telecom firm Bell Atlantic for 25 years before it became Verizon.

"Wireless connectivity is an essential service and infrastructure requirement similar to water and sewers," he told the Public Facilities Committee. "We have more than 2 million annual visitors who expect their mobile phones, tablets and laptops to work when they are on vacation. If Hilton Head Island can't meet their expectations, many of those tourists may look elsewhere."

Poor cell service also is a "deal breaker" when attracting business meetings and conferences, and is starting to lower home values, Collett said.

The island's tree canopy, flat terrain and low elevation make receiving cellphone signals difficult, which are usually too weak to penetrate buildings.

That prompted Crowne Plaza Resort to spend $200,000 on a system that takes multiple carriers' signals from the top of the hotel and distributes them throughout the resort with devices that resemble smoke detectors.

Residents, as well, have spent more than $100 on wireless signal boosters, Collett said. The device works like a mini cell tower, connecting to existing broadband Internet service to improve cell signal performance.

Hilton Head Plantation installed seven antennae throughout the gated community in 2004 as an alternative to a traditional cell towers that were deemed unsightly. Seven years later, the community still grapples with poor service because the antennae aren't high enough above the tree canopy, Collett said.

"The 'not in my backyard' tower issue has to be addressed head on," he told the committee.

Verizon has asked for help to improve its coverage inside Hilton Head's gated communities, which make up about 70 percent of the island.

AT&T has told the task force it is committed to adding up to 12 new towers by the end of 2012, but it needs town and community support to do so.

The task force recommended that the town:

  • Speed cell tower approvals so they take no longer than 90 days.

  • Adopt a standard carrier-tower rental rate to eliminate lengthy negotiations.

  • Install town-sponsored WiFi hot spots.

  • Consider building towers in critical locations and offer economic incentives if necessary.

  • Assist carriers by identifying potential tower locations on the island.

  • Tell residents of gated communities how to improve wireless coverage in their neighborhoods.

  • "We need to do everything we can as a town, but some of the burden is on the carriers," committee member Kim Likins said.

    For example, Likins said Verizon declined to use space on a recently approved 140-foot cell tower next to the town's fire station at 1001 Marshland Road to serve AT&T Mobility customers in the area.

    Senior planner Shea Farrar said she also gave Verizon possible locations for antennae in the Coligny Beach area.

    "But that doesn't mean it happens immediately," Farrar said. "There are multiple factors that play into their decisions that aren't town-related."

    Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

    Related content

    1. Task force, research firm to test island cellphone coverage: Aug. 1, 2011
    2. 'Can you hear me now?' - Group seeks a 'yes' on Hilton Head: April 11, 2011
    3. 140-foot cell phone tower on Hilton Head Island clears first hurdle: Jan. 19, 2011
    4. Can you hear me now? Hilton Head tries to balance cell-phone service with love of trees, not towers: Aug. 8, 2010

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