How about now? Now? What about now? For most callers who live on the South Fork, those questions are part of many cell phone calls. And, since the COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on infrastructure, with more people working from home, students learning remotely, and more people using streaming services on their devices, failed service and the buffering pinwheel are an inexorable annoyance.
Discussing the matter with the Southampton Town Board during its October 29 work session — in which the board was considering a proposal to install a cell tower in Noyac — consultant Keith Kito of SBA Communications noted that while other areas of Long Island experience cellular strife due to bandwidth capacity strained by an increase in demand, on the South Fork, it’s all about the dearth of cell towers creating gaps in service.
Southampton Town has a “very long-term” contract with SBA from the 1990s that has spanned several administrations, according to Janice Scherer, the town planning and development administrator. The firm is interested in partnering with the town to find sites suitable for cell towers.
Last week’s discussion was geared toward gauging the Town Board’s appetite for installing a stealth-design monopole at 30 Club Lane in Noyac. It isn’t a new question.
In 2018, neighbors of the site, a town highway yard, protested the idea of a cell tower’s erection in their community. The proposal came off the table, when it became clear the town had granted permission in error to a Deer Park-based company, when the “very long term” contract actually gave SBA the right of first refusal.
The proposal came off the table.
At last week’s work session, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman wondered if the town had ever conducted a study to determine where weaknesses are. In 2007, the town engaged company to determine coverage gaps during the process of creating a townwide wireless communications plan.
“That was over 10 years ago,” the supervisor said. “Things may have changed a lot.”
There are areas in town “where I always lose the call,” he said, acknowledging that, from his own experience “there are some really bad spots.”
“I can’t imagine if I had to call 911 in one of those spots,” he said.
The monopole structures, Mr. Schneiderman said, “You can’t even tell they’re cell towers.”
The 120-foot flagpole monopole towers, measuring 38 inches at the top and 48 inches at the base include six canisters for carriers inside it. SBA always offers local police and fire departments the opportunity to co-locate their communication antennas on the pole for free, Mr. Kito advised. Those would be the only visible antennas and would be placed at the top of the unipole.
SBA studied town-owned properties and compared it to known dead zones in an effort to figure out where best to place a monopole. On all of Long Island, it’s the South Fork that has myriad dead spots, Mr. Kito said. “Everywhere else we’re dealing with capacity issues. Out here, you truly have dead zones.” He said his firm already know where carriers hoped to go and compared it to where there was town-owned property.
Do carriers already know where they want to go because of how many complaints of dropped calls they get from customers? Councilwoman Julie Lofstad wondered.
“They’re getting phone calls, and, yeah. We have executives at Verizon calling me saying,’Can we get this going? This is bad out here,’” Mr. Kito said.
“If you build it, they will use it,” Mr. Schneidrman summarized.
“Exactly,” Mr. Kito confirmed. Once SBA receives the right to use the site, carriers — AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobil — can sign on as tenants.
Carriers usually spend between $750,000 and $1 million per site to install their equipment, so it’s a lot to get them to go to a new site, Mr. Kito informed, adding, however, “It’s not an issue out here, the demand is through the roof.”
If everything goes smoothly, it costs SBA $500,000 to put up the monopole. Per the old agreement, the town is only responsible for $125,000 of that. When the contract was inked, it was a good deal for SBA, but with changes to construction costs, the town is getting the longer end of the stick. “It’s a good deal for you, too, because the cost of land has gone up,” Mr. Schneiderman made clear.
The company pays for the construction and the town pays its share of construction, out of initial revenue. Once the company recoups construction costs, it shares revenue 50/50 with the town. The terms are not unfavorable, the supervisor opined.
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni wondered about the reach of the proposed Noyac monopole. Mr. Kito estimated it would improve service for up to 2 miles around. He noted, however, that carriers are asking for poles to be placed closer together “especially on Long Island” to satisfy demand.
“I’ve been through a number of cell tower battles,” the supervisor said.
“I think we’re all a little wounded,” Councilman John Bouvier enjoined.
Still, Mr. Schneiderman continued, now more than ever before, the outcry for cell service may outweigh the aesthetic concerns. With so many people now using streaming cell data, the supervisor said he’s receiving more and more calls complaining about cell service.
Maybe there’s been a shift toward a more favorable feeling toward cell towers, the lawmaker mused. He asked whether Mr. Kito would work with the community “to get their comfort level up?” Opinion about cell towers has changed in the last five years, Mr. Kito said, adding, “And even more so in the last eight months.”
Fielding complaints about cell service has become a daily exercise, Mr. Schneiderman said. Wealthy Manhattan refugees who fled east to escape the pandemic can’t understand how they pay $100,000 in taxes and don’t have basic infrastructure, the supervisor asserted.
He wondered whether SBA could erect a temporary tower to give the public a taste of what it would be like. East Hampton Town will be erecting a temporary site because, with so many people working from home and students learning virtually, the demand for service is so high.
“There is significant concern about a cellphone tower in this area,” Councilman Schiavoni reported. “The community’s going to want to be fully involved” At the same time, he said there is a major issue with service in Noyac and “it’s getting worse.”
There’s a “chicken and the egg” conundrum to solve, Ms. Scherer explained. The public may want to see a visual representation of what the monopole might look like, but SBA is reluctant to spend the thousands of dollars undertaking that effort entails before securing a lease.
The board and the firm will have to negotiate an agreement that satisfies both entities. Mr. Schneiderman suggested moving forward with the visual simulation work and making the lease of the land contingent upon community support. If the community doesn’t support the plan after seeing the simulation, the town will cover the cost of the effort; if it does, the expense will be SBA’s.