Town struggles to address cell service gaps
Updated 9:39 am, Wednesday, July 8, 2015
As town officials debated improving weak cellular coverage, First Selectman Rob Mallozzi made one message clear: Real estate values are at stake.
“You hear about towns having trouble selling homes because they don’t have adequate broadband and high speed Internet,” Mallozzi said. “We don’t want New Canaan to be labeled in that group.”
Mallozzi was responding during Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting to challenges with developing a unified long-term strategy. Mallozzi the town needs to pursue other ways to improve service while a strategy is developed.
Tom Tesluk and Howard Freeman of the town’s Utilities Commission, which has spearheaded the study of the problem, told the Board of Selectmen they need another $8,000 for the $15,000 cost to craft a request for proposal for cellular carriers to address the town’s gaps in signal. The gaps are pronounced in the north, northeast, and northwest parts of town.
Tesluk said the group has about $7,000 left over from an appropriation that completed an independent analysis of the town’s cellular coverage by consultant Centerline Solutions network last year.
“We’ve come up with a couple of names but the sticking point is we think all of them are going to come in well north of the money left from the study,” Tesluk said. “We have enough money to probably get started with the drafting but don’t have the money for the back end of it which is arguably more important.”
Mallozzi said the town might take the interim step of putting the remaining money toward a feasibility analysis of the potential impact of installing antennas or other equipment on a single site, naming Irwin Park on Weed Street.
Mallozzi said he was concerned about the additional projected cost of doing the RFP without further discussion with other boards about next steps to improve service.
“Are we better served while still having the conversation about spending more money on a broader RFP to at least start moving this thing off the dime and having a real good look see at Irwin?” Mallozzi said.
Tesluk told Mallozzi the remaining money could probably cover the cost of an evaluation of the expected effect of adding cell coverage equipment to Irwin Park within what would be expected limitations on antenna heights and visibility.
But Tesluk said regardless of whether the town spends money to study Irwin, he recommends the town not shelve the effort to develop an RFP for a wider solution to cover gaps in cellular service.
“The risk is you do one site and you galvanize all sorts of public opinion and the town loses all appetite for doing anything,” Tesluk said.
The town hired Colorado-based Centerline last year after being dissatisfied with recent cell tower proposals which included tall structures with external antennas. The study found that improving cellular phone service throughout town was complicated because of the town’s hilly topography and high real estate costs.
The study measured the coverage by the town’s four major carriers, finding that AT&T’s data network covers 75 percent of town, and its wireless voice service covers 66 percent of the town. The carrier lacks coverage in the east, northeast, north, and northwest parts of town, according to Centerline.
Verizon had the second largest span of coverage, with data coverage over 75 percent of the town but only covering 50 percent of the town with its voice network with similar gaps in service to AT&T.
T-Mobile's wireless voice and data networks cover about a third of the town and Sprint covers about a quarter of New Canaan, mostly in the downtown.
Mallozzi said he understood the value of the comprehensive RFP, but thinks the town should take a “two-tiered approach” of pursuing improvements on a specific site while the RFP is being hammered out.
“The issue I see is knowing we will probably have to go for funding(to do the RFP) that delays things,” Mallozzi said. “…I’d love to know what we could do with the Irwin building with an antenna or (something) hidden in the woods. I’d hate to lose the opportunity to have a discussion about something we’ve been discussing for a long time.”
Democratic Selectman Beth Jones said she believes the Town Council and Board of Finance would consider the additional money and keeping a primary focus on a town-wide solution would be a good investment.
The Town Council has also passed a resolution supporting moving forward with the RFP, Jones noted.
“It has been very clearly stated by the majority of residents this is a priority for the town,” Jones said. “… I think most of our residents would feel it was a good investment moving forward.”
In May the Board of Selectmen questioned a proposed Town Council resolution sent to them by the body recommending Mallozzi engage in discussions with cellular service providers to achieve a comprehensive coverage solution and their support for making town properties and rights of way available if they would improve service substantially.
Members of the Board of Selectmen said they didn’t see the need for the formal resolution recommending a course of action because the Utilities Commission has been spearheading the study of the coverage problem.
Town Council member John Engel, chairman of the body’s infrastructure and utilities committee, said he believes a continued focus on an RFP and town-wide coverage improvement plan, which would provide a range of options and locations to improve coverage, is the town’s best strategy.
While town leaders would like to see improvements to cellular service, there is a concern that pursuing a project on a specific piece of land would devolve into a retread of previous battles between residents, the town, and cellular carriers.
“Our goal is to get a comprehensive solution town-wide to get service to 90 percent and it would be a shame for each of us to pick our favorite spots and move forward and enter into disagreements with neighbors over those spots,” Engel said. “It is is like playing whack-a-mole when you identify specific projects because neighbors immediately ask, ‘Why this site?’”