Cell phone service providers AT&T and T-Mobile were back at the Woodstock Planning Board March 31 seeking approval again to upgrade equipment on Woodstock’s town-owned cell tower at California Quarry. And while T-Mobile’s representative appeared to present a wealth of knowledge, AT&T seemed to be less than forthcoming.
AT&T proposes to remove four of its six existing antennas and replace two. The sticking point has been AT&T’s failure to provide proof that the town of Woodstock, as the tower’s owner, gives consent for AT&T to make the changes. Woodstock Supervisor Bill McKenna believes Crown Castle, the town’s contracted management company, has authority to act on the town’s behalf, including giving such consent.
AT&T withdrew its previous application titled “5G Retrofit” and submitted an identical application with the same equipment, but removed references to 5G.
T-Mobile plans to replace four existing antennas and add two antennas that were previously approved but not installed. It also plans to replace two equipment cabinets and add radio equipment.
In 2021, the Planning Board rejected T-Mobile’s application to replace antennas because they were much larger and changed the tower’s footprint, defeating the stealth-like characteristics of the so-called monopine tower, which is designed to blend in with surrounding pine trees. The new proposal does not change the tower footprint.
Both companies assert their applications meet the requirements for an Eligible Facilities request, an FCC designation for removal, replacement or co-location of wireless transmission equipment. Local planning boards are required to approve such requests if they meet zoning and site plan requirements.
Planning Board struggles with AT&T but must ignore health effects
Some at the March 31 Planning Board meeting spoke of ill health effects and are concerned upgraded equipment will make things worse.
Mead Mountain Road resident Weston Blelock said he suffers from electromagnetic sensitivity and fears 5G technology, which is the next generation of cellular communication, will make matters worse. “I’m aware that the first application had 5G attached to the title, and I watched the last proceeding and learn that the application this time around, although it didn’t have 5G in the title, is identical to the last application,” he said. “I’m very concerned about having a 5G on the tower. And I feel that the town knows about the health issues, although we’re not supposed to talk about them.” Blelock agreed the changes require town approval in the lease.
Woodstock Planning Board Vice Chair Stuart Lipkind was of the same mind. “I don’t have any direct approval from the Town Board, which is the governing body and the proprietor of the tower,” said Lipkind. “I don’t have any direct communication from the Town Board as a whole, authorizing the relief that the applicant seeks…I’ve seen two separate emails, one from Bill McKenna, giving his personal opinion that the manager of the tower, Crown Castle, has the power under the master agreement to authorize the application, but it doesn’t go beyond that, in terms of his opinion. And then today, I received an email from another town board member Bennet (Ratcliff), who took the same position, but indicated he was only speaking for himself.”
Victor Capelli, an environmental analyst, said the effects of transmission energy from 5G should be considered. “This is something that should be addressed by you guys, because environmentally speaking, it is something that is cumulative and chronic with time. It is not just simply a one-off effect, but actually it increases with time. And you will see those effects in the general ecology with time,’ he said.
But Lipkind pointed out that health concerns can’t be a factor in the approval.
“Under federal law, this is an Eligible Facilities request. We as a Planning Board are prohibited, it’s my understanding, from considering the environmental effects,” Lipkind said. “If a request qualifies as an Eligible Facilities request, there’s federal regulations and laws that restrict [planning boards] in this area.” Lipkind said it is his personal view that the town is not restricted in the same manner because it can dictate requirements in the lease as owner of the tower.
Planning Board member John LaValle expressed frustration that he can’t get technical questions about power and frequencies answered from company representatives because they claim they aren’t engineers. Company reps have countered it is not relevant to the application.
“In terms of actual power at any given time, you are correct. We are not the engineers, and would not be able to answer that. But it actually also is not relevant to the Eligible Facilities request determination,” said Sarah Stevens, a representative for Centerline Communications, which represents AT&T.
“It really doesn’t answer the specific questions that were asked, but I’m taking your comment as an indication that you’re not able to answer the questions at this point. Is that fair,” asked Lipkind.
“I think it would be more that I don’t think it’s pertinent to the application at hand and isn’t something that our client would have authorized us to provide that information, because it’s not relevant,” Stevens countered.
Lipkind asked if the company can supply an engineer to answer questions and Stevens declined. “It’s not the type of question that would be applicable to the application at hand, so I would say no,” Stevens said.
Lipkind asked if AT&T will be operating within the frequency limits specified in the lease agreement and about the frequencies of signals emitted by the proposed equipment.
“I do not have that information in front of me and again, I would say that’s not relevant to the application at hand,” Stevens replied.
“When I took my FCC exam, specifically on antennas and transmission, I was required to know all of this,’ LaValle said. “And I don’t know enough right now, because of the fact that we have an incredible dance being done by the applicant at this point. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a very incomplete submission.”
Planning attorney Kim Garrison suggested the Planning Board get an opinion from other Town Board members on who has authority over the tower. The Planning Board will then address it at the April 7 meeting.
T-Mobile proposes to improve 4G LTE
In its application, T-Mobile supplied engineering certifications on power, frequency, exposure and interference, structural reports and signal propagation maps, despite not being required to do so.
T-Mobile representative Robert Gaudioso said the current application is completely different from the one that was denied last year. “I think the documentation far exceeds what was previously submitted,” he said.
A 12-foot crossbeam has been replaced with an 8-foot crossbeam and unlike the previous application, concealment socks will be placed on the antennas.
“Also I believe that the plans now also indicate that T-Mobile is willing to reinstall the branches in the area of the T-Mobile facility, which would completely conceal the proposed antennas, and therefore, would not defeat the stealth elements of the existing tower,” Gaudioso said. “We believe that based on the prior resolution amendment from some years ago, it’s actually the town’s responsibility to do that. Nevertheless, T-Mobile has proposed as part of this application, to reinstall those branches in the location of its proposed antennas and existing antennas.”
The upgrades will make connections to T-Mobile service more robust by adding frequencies in the 1900 and 2500 megahertz ranges.
“Each frequency band propagates differently. Some frequency bands propagate further, but they don’t propagate as well into buildings and through foliage. Some frequency bands propagate less, but propagate into more dense areas,” Gaudioso explained. “So by having different frequency bands, in this case, from 600, 1900, 2100, up to 2500 (MHz), we’re able to provide all those different levels of frequency bands, which basically allows us to provide all of our services.”
Lipkind asked how the additional frequencies will enable 5G. Gaudioso said the upgrades are to improve 4G LTE service and 5G is not planned yet. He added proof of need is not relevant to an eligible facilities request, but explained the plans in the interest of transparency.
“The FCC as held up by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has made it very clear… that proof of need is not relevant to an Eligible Facilities request. With that said, we did submit a report to try and in good faith, show the board exactly what we were doing,” he said. “People are misinformed many times and think 5G is at a higher power or at a much higher frequency band, 3.5 gigahertz or something in that range…In fact, if you look at T-Mobile’s publicly available information, they do 5G in certain places at different frequency bands. So every carrier does it differently. Everyone’s defining it differently.”
New 5G technology is a term used to refer to the latest generation of wireless communication. It allows for faster data speeds, more bandwidth and highest capacity.
“The bottom line is this modification, as we submitted in writing in our application, is to improve 4G LTE service. Whether someday or not, will it be able to or will be used for 5G, it would be speculation on my part at this time and I don’t have an answer for you.”
Lipkind expressed gratitude for straightforward answers on topics that can be complicated or not even permitted as a factor for approval.
“We’re in a town where, as you will probably find out, there’s a fairly large complement of citizens who have concerns about 5G and aspects of 5G that we’re not allowed to consider in our disposition of the application,” Lipkind said.
“We appreciate your position, and that’s why we took our time, and we tried to provide you with as much information that would help you understand these issues,” Gaudioso said. “And even though there were times tonight where I said I don’t believe it’s relevant, I tried to give you and my client tried to give you with documents, the information to show you that we are transparent, we’re not trying to hide anything, we think we have a good application, we think we’re entitled to the approval and we want to try and help you work through that process in a reasonable way.”
A public hearing on the application is scheduled for May 5.