Judi Shade, president of the Association of Landowners of Port Royal Plantation, lives in a cellphone dead zone.
To get reception, she's been forced to purchase a Samsung network extender for Verizon, which turns her WiFi router into a mini cell tower.
She and five of her Hilton Head neighbors have purchased the devices, which cost $130 to $200 and are carrier-specific.
"So when my kids and guests come with their AT&T or Sprint phones, they have no service," Shade said.
The island's tree canopy, flat terrain and low elevation make for spotty cell coverage, according to industry experts. Poor service became a prominent issue in the 2010 mayoral election, and Hilton Head Town Council made it a priority last year to improve telecommunications service on the island.
Town staff is proposing that island communities be allowed to place cell towers on nonresidential property with a simple change to their land-use plans, cutting town approval time from nine months to two or three months.
Currently, a landowner must request a zoning change from the town if the community's master plan does not already allow a cell tower there. Rezoning requires public hearings and meetings before two town committees and the Planning Commission before going to Town Council for final approval.
A minor change to the master plan can be approved by a town administrator. Public-notice requirements and design standards would still be required, town officials said."The gated communities are one of the biggest challenges with our wireless coverage," senior town planner Shea Farrar said. "A lot of the areas that need improved coverage the worst are in these planned developments, such as inside Port Royal Plantation. Our hope is to work proactively with the tower companies and the communities' property owners associations to improve wireless service."
Another proposed change would base a tower's distance from homes on the height of the tower's "fall zone," the area where a tower could fall if it collapsed.
Current rules require towers to be farther away from homes, so some sites that could have accommodated towers haven't been used."Hallelujah!" Shade said when told of the proposals. "The easier they can make it for the gated communities to place cell towers where they see fit, and carriers feel they can make money, the better for residents and people coming to the island. We are technologically behind. ... Cell coverage should be available island-wide, and not having it is detrimental."
An island task force of industry experts told Town Council in December that wireless carriers are not spending to improve their wireless service on Hilton Head because approval for new towers takes too long, and rules about where and how they can be built are too restrictive."It's the people in the plantation suffering from the lack of service, and it's their property owners' association that decides which is the fairest way to do it, rather than the town adding another layer of delay that has worked against us," task force chairman Jim Collett said.
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