Improving cell service in the Park

Companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T are leading a wave of cell phone tower upgrades in the Adirondack Park, which is good news for several reasons.

First, the obvious – it’s good for cell phone users: travelers, workers, business people, visitors, people thinking about moving here, etc. It’s probably unrealistic to expect a huge expansion of service area just yet – more on that in a minute – but if you use a smartphone, you may get more, faster Internet functions as service levels are upgraded from 2G to 3G, 4G or LTE. That’s important. Just like good roads are needed to keep the economy moving, nowadays good wireless infrastructure is needed, too.

Second, it’s good that it’s happening at all. Service providers have apparently gotten more comfortable with the state Adirondack Park Agency’s towers policy, and they’re submitting pre-application materials and otherwise playing the game the way the APA recommends. That’s the way planning and zoning are supposed to work – set a new normal, and developers get used to it and take it for granted – but it often takes a while to get to that point.

Third, it’s good that APA staff members and commissioners are re-evaluating their policy as they go, seeing what works and how well, and considering changes – like, perhaps, to the “substantially invisible” requirement for new towers. Granted, consistency is valuable in zoning, but gradual evolution is better. Better to tweak rules as needed, to make things work better for everyone, than to ride an old plan past its “best by” date, setting up the need for a huge overhaul at some point.

At this month’s APA meeting, staff members and commissioners said they were generally pleased with how well service providers are working with them on the new wave of upgrades. The upgrades can largely be done by replacing antennas rather than building new towers. Look closely at any tall structure in the Park, from the Lake Placid ski jumps to the Tupper Lake water tower, and you’re likely to see cell phone antennas on it.

That’s good, but we suspect the overwhelming majority of Adirondack residents and visitors would also like to see the cell service range expanded on highways and in hamlets. For that, some new towers will have to be built.

Amid the first cell tower building wave in the early 2000s, the APA enacted guidelines that encouraged co-location of antennas and required new towers to be “substantially invisible.” It was a middle-ground position that did what it was intended to do: Limit new towers but not choke them out. APA staff made much of saying they were working well with tower builders, but with the rules, each new tower was enough of a regulatory hassle that companies were picky about which ones they pursued. The larger population hubs were covered pretty well, but even in mid-sized Adirondack communities like Bloomingdale and Keene, it took a great deal of local effort to get anything more than the spottiest of cell service.

There’s still none at all on many long stretches of well-traveled Adirondack highways: Route 30, Route 458, Route 73 and, most infamously, I-87. Some of the Northway dead zones have been filled in, but slowly. Many thousands of people travel those highways every day. Their safety should be a concern to the government, and their blackout time should be a concern to service providers. Between those two, they ought to work something out.

“Substantially invisible” is certainly a candidate for review. On the plus side, it has resulted in many towers that people use and don’t see. But it has also blocked towers in places where they would do much good and little to no harm, like the remote Route 30 stretch between Malone and Paul Smiths. In these cases, necessity should outweigh minimal visibility. Perhaps there needs to be a weighing process for these pros and cons, with some slightly more visible towers being allowed, albeit spread out widely.

In general, Adirondackers love the Park’s natural beauty and appreciate that its natural landscapes don’t have towers poking up through them. But people are not just camping out here. They live here the same as people live all over New York, and the need for modern human infrastructure in the Park has long since been validated.