2017-08-10 / Front Page

Cell Phone Providers Exploring Options

By James Merolla

Wireless cell phone signal providers continue to seek alternative ways to establish and expand their signal coverage sites all over the city, but especially in the south end, as some leases have expired and others are about to expire on a cell tower at Rogers High School (RHS).

Their presence is already a fixture in unusual (read: tall) places, such as St. Augustin’s and Emmanuel Church, where their signal antennae are hidden from public view, either constructed inside the church tower or painted to resemble it.

Unlike the large tower at RHS, which will no longer be allowed to hold the equipment of Verizon, TMobile and AT&T, as it did for the past two decades, the lack of a suitable replacement has forced the cellular companies to put together a network of smaller towers and locations that could service the Fifth Ward area.

Many neighbors are not even aware that the church spires hold antennae, and those who have learned are not always happy about it.

There are signals to be caught from atop the Hotel Viking, Fort Adams and other spots where cell carriers already exist. It’s what must be done to allow cell phones to work properly, the companies argue. It also is a public safety issue, cell phone carriers insist, to ensure that people get clear signals for Code Red Alerts and/or emergency responses from police, fire and EMTS. They want sufficient emergency signal coverage in the south end, which they insist will be reduced once the tower equipment is removed.

On Aug. 28, the City Zoning Board of Review will rule on an appeal by Dennis and Beverlee Taber of 2 Harrison Ave., who live in the Fifth Ward.

The Tabers want to curtail the issuance of a building permit to St. Augustin’s Church to remove three existing antennae (painted to look exactly like the bric-a-brac of the exterior of the steeple of the church) in their nearby school, and to put up three expanded antennae.

The matter was heard in July, but the appeal decision was delayed to late August. The board asked Attorney Edward Pare, representing T-Mobile, if the school were still operational, and he said he did not know. Pare has argued that the replacement of something that already has approval makes the appeal null and void.

The abutters don’t see it that way. The argument on their side is that if the school is no longer open as a school, then the T-Mobile request is, in fact, a new use.

The issue has been a sensitive matter within St. Augustin’s parish for two years. On the one hand, expanded cell signals would bring in much needed revenue to the church. On the other, the majority of parishioners don’t want the expansion and larger devices.

On June 20, Rev. Kris von Maluski, pastor of St. Augustin’s, wrote a letter to parishioners regarding Verizon’s approach to the Diocese of Providence to place new antennae and equipment on the church tower and grounds. T-Mobile is the carrier being heard before the Zoning Board, but other carriers can request placement on existing equipment, first implemented at the church years ago, through Verizon.

Despite parish objections to the Diocese’s allowance of a cell tower expansion or augmentation, a new lease was negotiated and signed with Verizon last year. In March, a Diocesan attorney advised the parish that it was open to a “lawsuit and financial penalties if it did not proceed in good faith to implement the lease with Verizon.”

The parish discussed options and decided to proceed with the lease, given that the priest’s letter warned of the “possibility of Verizon pursuing legal action.”

“Parish leadership is not pleased with the outcome of the Verizon project…they were excluded from the initial decision-making process…” the pastor wrote.

Neither von Maluski nor the Diocese would comment.

Cell phone carriers told the School Committee, throughout 2016 and 2017, when they were trying to renegotiate new leases on the cell phone tower at Rogers High, that they were limited in placing their devices on tall structures in the south end.

Verizon’s contract expired with the city on June 18. The AT&T contract is up on Oct. 23 and the TMobile contract expires on Dec. 28.

Despite repeated attempts to get the city to sign new leases, the schools voted against their return and have deferred all future discussions on possible cell carrier leases to the city, according to School Committee Chairman, David Hanos, Jr.

Building permits have been issued to T-Mobile’s contractor as of April of this year to expand the signal catchers on St. Augustin’s, according to City Zoning Officer Guy Weston. There is no public timetable for the work, if the Taber appeal is denied.

At Emmanuel Church, Rev. Anita Louise Schell confirmed the existence of a Verizon set of antennae, in place on the highest level of the interior of the church. “It is welcome,” she added.

Schell said that the company has been a good tenant for many years.

“I came here seven years ago, and Verizon has been here many years before that. They are excellent tenants. They have a technician on hand who handles every possible contingency. There is no danger. It has been completely tested to federal standards,” she said.

Schell also said that the vetting process was completely transparent, that Verizon went through all the public permitting, measurements, and ordinance requirements through the city, as everyone else in the industry must. –With additional reporting by Bob Rulli .

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