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Cell tower plan needs update

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By John Barnhart

    Bedford County’s telecommunications tower strategic plan needs an update, according to George Condyles, president of The Atlantic Group. This company serves as the county’s technical consultant on telecommunications tower issues.
    The current plan was adopted in 2002. At that time cell phone companies were in the process of transitioning from analog transmissions to digital. Wireless service concentrated on voice with very little data.
    “There was no such thing as apps,” Condyles said.
    The focus was on mobile phone service.
    Now, wireless carriers are moving to 4G (fourth generation) service and Condyles noted that no company can provide this in more than 25 percent of Bedford County. There is also a need for them to be able to provide a stronger signal that allows wireless devices to be used inside buildings.
    “Wireless is where the folks are going,” Condyles said.
    Condyles said that making it possible for wireless companies to provide the service people want throughout the county means more, smaller towers, plus some larger ones.
    At present, Bedford County’s plan covers only 80-foot towers. although larger ones exist that predate the plan, and exceptions can be granted via a special use permit. Condyles proposes modifying the plan to allow four classes of towers: 40-feet, 80-feet and 195-feet.
    “Rarely in land-mobile radio do you have to get higher than 195-feet,” he said.
    Condyles said his company has identified 10 sites where they believe that a 195-foot tower is needed to provide wireless coverage throughout the county. He noted that, right now, some parts of the county don’t even have good voice wireless service, let alone broadband Internet.
    Tall towers will be able to communicate with small towers, according to Condyles, and 40-foot towers could be located in residential areas. One way to make them acceptable would be to place these towers along the utility right-of-ways where power companies already have power poles.
    Stealth techniques are something else that can be incorporated in the plan. Condyles provided examples of ways that cell towers have been camouflaged, including one that does double duty as a flag pole, one hidden in a structure that looks like a farm silo and one, near Mt. Vernon, that is disguised as a fake tree.
    He also gave examples of colocation, in which antennae are mounted on existing tall structures, such as silos, smoke stacks, water towers and the towers that support power transmission lines.
    “When you get to those shorter ones, you gotta be more creative in how you are going to get them there,” he said.
    Condyles said that this will also set a standard for cell towers in residential areas due to possible future federal regulation. He said that recent federal legislation, an amendment that rode the Job Creation Act of 2012 into law, may bring down more federal regulation that will limit localities’ ability to control where these towers are built. He said that he will be attending a conference on this issue.