Signs of a new cell tower rush on the horizon
After a several-year lull in new cell towers being built in the mountains, a new wave of tower construction could be on the horizon as cell companies race to accommodate the surge in digital data moving on wireless networks.
Haywood County is currently fielding a new Verizon cell tower application that will increase signal strength in a large area around Lake Junaluska. The tower would fill in a couple small dead spots.
But more so, it will provide stronger signal strength needed to watch movies, send photos and check email on your phone.
Maps accompanying the permit application show large swaths shaded in red and yellow, indicating weak or mediocre reception.
“Are these dead spots to talk?” Haywood Planning Director Kris Boyd asked. “Maybe not, but what is the new form of wireless communication? It’s not voice.”
Boyd flipped to the next map in the application — one that shows anticipated coverage after the tower goes up — and those red and yellow patches turn green, the color denoting strong signal strength.
The application is one of the first Haywood has seen in several years, and may be on the cusp of a new wave of cell tower construction. It would mark the third such wave. “We saw a big push in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then another big push to fill in dead spots in the mid-2000s,” Boyd said.
And then, nothing. Until recently.
Since last summer, two new cell towers have been proposed in Haywood. Two more have been proposed in Waynesville’s town limits this year.
Macon County has seen three applications in that time period, after a several-year lull of its own. And Jackson County recently saw its first cell tower application in four years, with more likely coming down the pike.
“We have gotten inquiries about locations, and I do think we will be getting some more soon,” Jackson County Planner Gerald Green said.
While there was a hiatus in new cell towers for a few years, it doesn’t mean the mountains were free of dead spots.
“We still have lots of dead spots in our county,” Boyd said. But the last bastions of dreaded dead spots are so rural — like upper Fines Creek or Lake Logan — that there’s not enough potential customers per square mile to justify the cost of putting up a tower.
Other dead spots are simply small pockets tucked in a hollow here or there where the signal is blocked — but again don’t have the customers to warrant a tower of their own.
There’s another reason cell companies had quit building new towers for a while. Technology advances allowed cell companies to get better reach and increase capacity simply by switching out old antennas for new ones, or by adding more antennas to existing towers, Boyd said.
Until recently, towers were limited in the number of antennas they could hold. Antennas needed a separation radius from other each other. Now, they can be more closely packed in, and that means more capacity to handle the large volume of data moving over wireless carriers — without needing a new tower to do so.
It also means more cell companies can piggy-back on the same tower.
“Technology has allowed them to put more antennas on the same location,” Boyd said. “We’ve seen a big transition in that over the past couple of years.”
In fact, while new tower applications have been almost nil, Boyd has seen more than two dozen applications for new equipment being installed on existing towers in the past year.
For example, AT&T added new antennas to 15 existing towers across the county in a six-month period this year alone, according to a review of county cell tower records.
The wave of new cell towers being proposed have met with mixed receptions.
• Verizon pulled its application for a tower in the Cashiers area of Jackson County recently after a public outcry over marred views.
• In August, two separate cell tower applications were denied in Macon. One potentially interfered with flight paths at the airport, but it could be tweaked and brought back again. The other failed because the applicant didn’t demonstrate that the tower was necessary to fill in wireless service gaps.
• Two towers have been proposed in the town of Waynesville, which handles permits within the town limits separately from the county. One is from U.S. Cellular for the hillside above East Street, along Reservoir Drive, and will likely be approved, joining another tower already at the site but that has reached capacity. Another was from Verizon for a tower at Dutch Fisher Park in Hazelwood, but the site was deemed unsuitable, putting Verizon on the prowl once more.
• Meanwhile, two have come through Haywood County. One was approved last year near Waterville to fill in a dead zone in the Pigeon River Gorge along Interstate 40. The other is the Verizon tower currently pending in the Lake Junaluska area off Sleepy Hollow Drive.
Jackson has been rewriting its cell tower rules lately, a process that is still in the works as the planning board grapples with the age-old cell tower conundrum: the public wants wireless signal, but doesn’t want to see the towers.
Finding the right balance — allowing towers tall enough to do the job, but not so tall they are an eyesore — is done through cell tower ordinances, which vary from county to county.
In Macon, the maximum tower height is 180 feet. In Haywood, the maximum height is 60 feet above the surrounding tree tops, with actual tower height ranging between 110 feet and 150 feet on average.