2017-04-27 / Front Page

Carriers Warn of Public Safety Crisis

Officials from City Hall plan to step in to prevent loss of cell coverage
By Olga Enger

Three cell phone providers claim the south end of Newport may lose service, including emergency 911 coverage, if they have to vacate the tower on the Rogers High School property.

"There is a crisis looming," said Attorney Edward Pare, representing AT&T at an April 25 workshop with the Newport School Committee. "AT&T services almost 4.2 million calls a year, just from this site. This is all consumer-driven."

No action was taken at the meeting.

The Newport School Committee voted 5-1 in December 2015 to not to renew the three-year leases for AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, the carriers that rent space on the tower. The companies pay the School Department about $90,000 annually to rent the space.

Attorney Joseph Hall told Newport This Week that Verizon has a contingency plan, but it is not an ideal solution. The other carriers declined to comment on potential alternatives. A tower must be physically located in the area it serves, which is limited in the south end of Newport, the companies claim. Although residents asked about Fort Adams at the workshop, the attorneys said that serves a different area.

Verizon's contract expires June 18; AT&T's agreement ends Oct. 23; and the T-Mobile lease is up on Dec. 28. They have 120 days to vacate after their leases expire.

Mayor Harry Winthrop told Newport This Week that city officials plan to step in to avoid a loss of service.

"We have not gotten involved just yet, but we will," he said. "This has changed from a revenue and aesthetics issue to a public safety concern."

He said the City Council will keep all options open, but the city will not allow a gap in coverage. "I will ensure the people of the south end of the city that they will have cell service. Taking it out is not an option," Winthrop said.

Newport Fire Chief Peter Connerton warned about the public safety risk if the area goes dark. Roughly 75 percent of local 911 calls are made with mobile phones, according to a Rhode Island Emergency Services Dispatch Analysis.

"This lack of coverage would not only prevent us from communicating via cell phone, but would also eliminate our ability to establish telemetry with hospitals in northern Rhode Island and in Massachusetts to have their physicians determine if patients should be direct transports to their facilities due to the nature of their medical emergencies," Connerton wrote in an April 25 memo to Superintendent Colleen Burn Jermain.

Hall believes neighbors had a satisfactory relationship with the carriers until Verizon added unsightly infrastructure to the tower in 2014. Verizon has offered to upgrade the design so it more closely resembles the tower before the additions.

"It is proposed that the existing equipment structure and the platform supporting it would be removed, and in the process, equipment cabinets be located on the west side of the site occupying considerably less space, which would be much less obvious than the present configuration," Hall wrote in a memo to the School Committee. Additionally, the Verizon antenna would be removed and a new one would be flush mounted against the face of the tower.

However, neighbor Jim Nolan said a reconfiguration would not appease his concerns. "Verizon was just the straw that broke the camel's back," he told Newport This Week.

The neighbors originally accepted a variance for an educational windmill in the 1980s. "When the turbine came down, the tower should have come down,” he said.

Although the carriers went through a public RFP process, the neighbors do not feel the decision to erect the cell tower was transparent.

Nolan said the end result is not only unsightly, but it is also loud. His mother, who lives next door, is bothered by a persistent electrical humming. He suggested the carriers consider the rooftops of the Preservation Society mansions or on the Coast Guard property as alternative locations.

"I don't blame the companies, I blame the government," said School Committee member Dan Carlin about the transparency complaints.

Although residents have raised health concerns due to emissions, the providers argue the tower does not pose a risk to the neighborhood. The companies hired a radiation safety expert, Donald L. Haes Jr., to measure the radio frequency levels around the tower. He determined that during the peak reading, the exposure was 1/70th of what is allowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates emissions.

Under the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act, local boards may not deny a cell tower based on the potential adverse health impact of radio-frequency emissions.

"This is not a local issue," said Hall. "The problem was, people were continuing to get sidetracked with what we know as fake science. So, the federal government stepped in."

The carriers offered to reimburse the School Committee the cost to hire their own expert to measure the tower's emissions.

As a stop-gap measure, Hall recommended the School Committee extend the leases for a period of time to continue conversations.

"So, we put everyone in a position where there is no gun to everyone's head," he said.

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