Word is spreading — and not necessarily by cell calls — with regards to poor cell phone reception throughout areas of Anna Maria Island.
“It’s about quality of life, public safety and necessity,” said Jimmy Eatrides, CEO of Alpha-Omega Communications LLC, during a presentation for a new cellular communications tower for Bradenton Beach at the Jan. 12 city commission workshop.
“These are the things we are dealing with here,” he said. “When you look at Bradenton Beach, you have to look at why good wireless and connectivity are important.”
Cell phones have evolved over the last decade, and have become a necessity, similar to, “electricity, water, and sewer services,” said Eatrides.
The Jan. 12 meeting was an informational presentation that outlined the current problems, while offering solutions.
“I’m not going to ask you to do anything today,” said Eatrides. “This is just an informational meeting. This topic is very complex, so we just want to present relevant information that will hopefully help you make the appropriate decision.”
Eatrides and business partner Kevin Barile, president of Ridan Industries II LLC, made their presentation receptive to the commission. No one from the public attended to voice any comments on the subject, but the commissioners did have questions.
Commissioner Gay Brueler asked about health concerns related to cell towers, particularly in regards to radio frequency exposure.
Barile said radio frequency output is strictly monitored by FCC regulations and providers must adhere, noting that exposure from cell towers is less than from an individual’s cell phone.
“You are exposed to about .75 to 1.0 watts of radio frequency from your cellphone’s handset, which is higher than what you get from a tower,” said Barile. “Actually, it’s an argument for a tower, because the closer you are to a tower, the less frequency is being used by your phone to pick up signal.”
Eatrides said the signal from a tower is actually less than what is emitted when someone uses their garage-door opener and that a cell tower’s frequency exposure to the public, “is million times below the allowable FCC standards.”
Commissioners were presented with maps outlining the current coverage issues facing Islanders.
Bradenton Beach, in particular, sits in a wide hole between existing cell towers, and Eatrides said both are only designed to broadcast about a mile.
Eatrides said Bradenton Beach picks up on those towers, but has to contend with a variety of issues to maintain signal.
“Coverage for these areas is about a mile, and Bradenton Beach is out, far away from the nearest cell sites,” he said. “We have a big hole we have to fill one way or another, in terms of coverage. The only other option would be Coquina Beach and that would shortchange the other towers and primarily broadcast to fish and dolphins.”
Eatrides and Barile say tower at the Bradenton Beach public works building is the optimal solution, and are offering the city the same deal that is currently being negotiated in Anna Maria.
In exchange for the location, the city would receive an advance of $350,000 and 30 percent of tower profits, paid monthly.
After providing commissioners a list of options, pros and cons, Barile and Eatrides are recommending a 150-foot “stealth unipole.”
Stealth towers can be made to appear as a flagpole, palm tree, lighthouse and more, and all equipment is inside the tower. They are recommending a flagpole because of its location and minimal impact on the skyline.
Barile said that from a land-use point of view, “The public works site is optimal and would fill the coverage hole,” he said. “It’s one location. If any carrier wants to come into the area, they’ll use this tower.”
Barile said it’s a myth that if one tower goes up, “they spring up everywhere like mushrooms. One tower can host up to six carriers.”
However, there would still be a coverage hole the recommended tower, according to the maps presented to the commissioners.
“We use the 1-mile coverage as a base, but if you aren’t going through a gazillion trees, coverage is actually a mile and a half, and that will overlap with the tower to the north, so you would be covered,” he said.
Barile said the impact to the city’s public works facility would be minimal.
“You might lose one to two parking spaces at the most,” he said.
Commissioner Jan Vosburgh pointed out that she worked in electronics for close to a decade and was concerned about how technology can outpace itself.
“I can’t imagine anyone would complain about this,” she said. “But what bothers me the most is that technology changes so quickly. How far are we from this being obsolete?
Barile said in his 15 years of constructing towers, he has never seen one removed.
“I have seen them replaced, but never removed,” he said, noting that the contract will provide for relatively inexpensive removal bonds.
Eatrides said that the towers are “built to Florida building code, which is one of the strictest in the country. The bottom is made to withstand 200-mph winds and the top is designed to fold over. If a major hurricane came through here, most of your buildings would be gone, but this thing would still be here.”
Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale said his department is frustrated by a lack of coverage and a new cell tower would dramatically improve his department’s response time.
“We have huge holes in our coverage,” said Speciale. “Our patrol cars are using air cards for the computers and we have some major dead spots. Not only is the call dropped, but the system drops, so we have to reboot that. It’s really important that we have that cell coverage.”
Information provided by the presenters show Manatee County’s emergency responders received 55 percent of their calls from cell phones in 2006. In 2009, the number grew to 66 percent when compared to landlines, and cell phone callers grow each year, as more of the population leaves behind landlines for cell phone use.
Islanders also rely heavily on cell phone use while working, and communications during a natural disaster are essential when it comes to wireless technology.
An argument in opposition of cell towers, according to Barile, is often presented in the form of concerns over property values. Barlile said a study done on the Holmes Beach tower showed no evidence of decreased property values.
“In fact, we are trying to get evidence to the contrary,” said Barile. “We are of the opinion that property values increase when there is quality wireless coverage because it’s one of the first things people want to know about when looking at a new location. It goes back to the necessity of cell phone use as a utility.”
Mayor John Shaughnessy said cell phones are obviously not going anywhere.
“One of the reasons we arranged this is so the commissioners have the knowledge in case their constituents have any questions as we proceed,” he said. “In order to proceed, we have to know what’s going on.”
Barile said that should the commission proceed, he and Eatrides would continue to meet with the public and inform people about the tower.
“When people are informed, they make better decisions,” he said.
Shaughnessy said the city already has ordinances in place “so we are a step ahead of the game anyway. We can’t have our (communications) going out the way they do. We can’t have gaps in the communication when it comes to public safety.”