140-foot cell phone tower on Hilton Head Island clears first hurdle

A proposed cell tower on Hilton Head Island could mean fewer dropped calls for some AT&T customers.

The town's Planning Commission recommended Wednesday amending the Indigo Run master plan to allow a 140-foot-tall cell tower for AT&T Mobility at the Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division's Fire Station No. 7 at 1001 Marshland Road.

The new tower would be in a wooded area and screened with vegetation, according to the application. The tower would provide residential coverage to Spanish Wells and portions of Indigo Run. The town's Fire & Rescue Division would have space on the tower for equipment that would increase its communications coverage. Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas said the space will be needed.

"As we transfer more and more data to communicate with dispatch, fire stations and apparatus, we'll need better facilities to make that happen," Lucas said.

Residents and consumers have long complained about poor cell phone coverage on Hilton Head. It was an issue in November's mayoral race, and Mayor Drew Laughlin said last week he intends to establish a group of industry experts to recommend improvements to wireless phone and Internet service.

"There is a real problem on the island, not only with cell phone coverage, but broadband Internet access as well," said planning commissioner Terry Ennis. "Any move we make in that direction is a good move, if the island is to grow."

American Tower Corp. requested the amendment. The Boston-based owner and operator of wireless and broadcast communication sites said it wants to lease land for new towers from the town at the fire station and Crossings Park.

Jay Sanders, an American Tower agent, said the Marshland Road tower will improve reception for AT&T Mobility customers and would have space to accommodate other carriers, such as Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint.

He said the tower can provide 4G service, "either now or in the future."

Verizon announced earlier this month plans to bring its 4G Long Term Evolution network to Hilton Head and surrounding areas as part of a push into 140 new markets this year. Verizon said its technology promises data speeds 10 times faster than today's 3G networks and comparable to that of a computer plugged into a digital subscriber line for those with 4G-capable devices, such as mobile phones and tablet and notebook computers.

However, cell phone coverage in Indigo Run and Spanish Wells is extremely limited because trees block cellular signals, Sanders said.

"There is poor to no coverage," especially inside buildings and vehicles, he said.

Adding the tower should solve most of those problems, Sanders said.

"You have to get a certain height above the tree level to get the best coverage for our signal," he said.

Sanders said American Tower is looking at other locations on the island to place more towers, but he did not have details.

He said the company hopes to have the tower built sometime this summer.

The issue goes next to the town's Planning and Development Standards Committee before being sent to council for final approval in March.