What Will It Take To Bring Cell Coverage to New York’s North Country?

A recent report renewed a decades-long debate over a regulatory requirement that cell towers in Adirondack Park be “substantially invisible.”

Lilah Burke   ·   December 13, 2021
Ive never had my day ruined because I could see a fire tower in the distance orif I could find itbecause I could see a cellular tower, state Senator Dan Stec said. | IMTFI

About a third of New York’s Franklin County, which borders Canada to its north and the Adirondack mountains to its south, is without cell service. That can lead to severe consequences — like when emergency responders drive up and down miles of road, looking for the scene of the accident. 

“It’s not at all uncommon to have a car accident where there are severe injuries or even fatal injuries, and someone has to drive past it to make a call and then go back to see if they can help,” said Sandra Nichols, who works for emergency services in Franklin County, which is located partially within Adirondack Park, the 9,000 square mile preserve upstate. 

Spotty cell coverage comes in part from factors beyond local officials’ control, like the area’s mountainous terrain and its low population density, which means companies building towers can struggle to get a return on their investment. But the issue also stems from a decades-long fight around Adirondack Park’s cell tower restrictions, which require towers to be “substantially invisible” to protect the landscape’s visual character.

A host of local elected officials, businesses and safety advocates favor taller towers, to obtain broader coverage. But other residents, including preservationist groups, worry the towers could blemish the mountain vistas that prop up the regional economy. 

The issue has received renewed local scrutiny following a recent report put together by the Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force, a group created by former Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2019 that includes politicians, telecom experts, regional planners and public safety specialists, made recommendations on how to improve cell phone coverage in the region.

The task force recommended simplifying and standardizing some of the regulatory processes currently involved in cell phone tower construction. It stopped short of calling for an end to the “substantially invisible” policy, though it noted that the process of meeting the requirement “can be logistically complex.”

Overall, bringing call coverage to major roadways in Adirondacks and Catskills will cost about $610 million in private and public investment, the report concluded, with over $422 million going just to the Adirondacks.

“We’re weighing the public safety good against the visual impact,” said Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, another county located partially within Adirondack Park, and a member of the task force. “At the end of the day that’s really what we’re doing.”

The requirement that towers be “substantially invisible” was enacted in 2002 by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the state agency responsible for regulating the park.  To win approval from the APA, cellular companies typically conduct visual impact testing, which requires flying special balloons at the site and taking pictures. The process can take up to six months, especially in the winter, and the task force found it to be “a major factor slowing the permitting process in areas under APA jurisdiction.”

The APA defends the policy as necessary to protect the park’s aesthetic character, even as local state legislators plead for taller towers. The Adirondack Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving and protecting the park, is also in favor of keeping the policy as-is.

The lack of coverage can have serious stakes. In the winter of 2007, an older couple crashed their car off the side of Interstate 87 in Essex County. Unable to call for help, they waited 32 hours in the cold. The man died of exposure and the woman sustained frostbite injuries.

Cell coverage on Interstate 87 has improved since that accident, and emergency responders in some counties have used technology like Text-to-911 software that helps work around the coverage gaps. But politicians and advocates in the region still refer to the accident when discussing cell coverage, saying they want to prevent future tragedy.

Willie Janeway, executive director for the Adirondack Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving and protecting the Adirondack Park, says the park—the largest in the continental U.S.—requires special protections to maintain not only its aesthetic character, but its economy, of which tourism is a large part.

But the Council supported the findings and recommendations of the task force’s report, suggesting potential areas of compromise. The task force recommended creating a special service plan for the Adirondacks, maximizing private investment and taking advantage of small cell technology, which is weaker but less visible. If the state takes up those recommendations, Janeway argued, coverage can be built out without changing the tower policy. 

“The solution to the gaps is not one of rejecting the visual protections that we have, but investing in smarter power and smarter service,” he said. “It’s a false choice to think we have to sacrifice the visual character of the park to get service.”

But Assemblymember Robert Smullen (R—North Country) argues that achieving broader cell coverage would cost significantly less than the $610 million price tag estimated by the task force if the regulations around taller towers were eased. Smullen is hopeful that the new chair of the Adirondack Park Agency, John Lyman Ernst, recently appointed by Governor Hochul, will take a different approach. (The agency declined to make Ernst available for an interview.)

“Our citizens and their lives and their safety come first. I think we can work out all the details of keeping the natural aesthetic beauty of the park,” Smullen said. 

State Senator Dan Stec (R—North Country) said he doesn’t want the Adirondack High Peaks overrun with visible cell towers, but that he also favors reviewing the tower policy, and feels that much of the concern around visual impact is overblown.

“I’ve never had my day ruined because I could see a fire tower in the distance or—if I could find it—because I could see a cellular tower,” he said. “We’re requiring crucial public safety infrastructure to be invisible.”

Ski jumps built for the 1980 Winter Olympics are visible from the Adirondack High Peaks, Stec pointed out, and he hasn’t heard complaints about them.

“If you’re driving along the interstate and you can see a cell tower, guess what, you’re on an interstate. I don’t think anyone’s going to get bent out of shape because they can see a man-made structure driving on a four-lane highway,” he said. 

But the APA argues that the policy hasn’t stopped companies from building towers and improving coverage. The agency has approved towers over 100 feet tall in the past, a spokesperson pointed out, including four new towers since 2019. And while it has asked for modifications and offered guidance to cell companies, it has never rejected a formal application to build a new tower, the spokesperson said.

Assemblymember Matthew Simpson (R—North Country), takes a position closer to that of the Adirondack Council than either Smullen and Stec.

“There’s a mix of technology identified in the task force report that can bridge the gap and hopefully utilize every opportunity to expand this without having to raise the tower height,” he said.

The task force recommended that the state provide financial incentives for companies to grow their coverage in the area, especially with support from federal dollars. The state could also create a special coverage plan for the Adirondacks, like those used in Yellowstone National Park and New Jersey’s Pinelands National Reserve. Easing permits for small cell technology, which covers only a small area, could further help build out coverage in difficult areas. 

Using new technology for visual simulations, creating a pre-application handbook for companies, and reviewing applications in batches could lessen the burden on cell companies and allow them to be approved faster and cheaper. 

“Carriers will deploy more capital in regions where they know they will be able to find sites and permit those sites within reasonable and predictable timeframes,” the report found.

A spokesperson for the APA said the agency will pursue eliminating the current requirement for a balloon test, allowing for fully computer-generated simulations, and creating a pre-application handbook for companies, in addition to the pre-application consulting process it already offers. 

The agency’s staff has been reduced in the last few decades and, until Governor Hochul appointed Ernst to the position in October, it was without a chair for more than two years.

Nearly all stakeholders agree that, whether the tower policy is amended or not, cell coverage in the region must be addressed by the state. In Hamilton County, contact tracers at the start of the pandemic found they often needed to send officials to residents’ homes because they could not get through via text or phone call. 

“If this was just going to happen organically, it would have happened,” Farber said. “We can’t accept the status quo.”

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