Press Releases

Adirondack Council Supports Cell Task Force Call for $700 Million Investment in Adirondacks, Catskills

Funds Would Support New Plan, Small Cells, Incentives to Fill Gaps 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021  

ALBANY, N.Y. – The Adirondack Council today said it supports the major findings of a recent report completed by Empire State Development Corp. and the Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force, which calls for a special coverage plan for the Adirondack and Catskill parks, where most of the coverage gaps now exist. The report estimated the cost of full coverage at roughly $700 million.

“The report confirms what we have experienced for some time now. Cell companies will only invest in places where there is a large enough population to meet their income targets,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “The report confirms that population density is the biggest factor in determining where companies will develop the required infrastructure – not the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) or the two parks’ land-use controls. It also confirms that we need a coverage plan for all the communities and major travel corridors in Park, that there is a lot of potential for small-cell coverage expansions, and that we need financial incentives for providers to expand coverage.”

In fact, Janeway noted that the report refers to the Adirondack and Catskill parks as “national treasures.”

“We could not have said it better ourselves,” said Janeway, who leads the Park’s largest environmental organization.  

The Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force was appointed in the spring to report on all cell coverage gaps north of Westchester County and determine the cost of filling those gaps. On Thursday, Adirondack Park Agency Executive Director Terry Martino said she would begin to implement some of its recommendations. She didn’t specify which.

Coverage Plan Essential

Janeway cheered the task force’s recommendation for a comprehensive coverage plan, stating that was the most essential ingredient needed for making progress. Similar plans are in place in other national parks and the protected New Jersey Pinelands.

“A coverage plan can give state and local officials a complete picture of the gaps that exist, so any incentives can be focused on new coverage, not rewards for investments they would have made anyway,” he said. “The report places special emphasis on that. We agree.

“The cell companies are not filling the coverage gaps on their own,” he said. “The report notes that of the 40 new tower applications under review by the Park Agency this summer, only seven would fill coverage gaps. The other 33 were for additional capacity in already-covered places.”

News Alert: $700 Million Won’t Buy 5G Service

The report says cell coverage in both the Adirondack and Catskill parks – which host the state’s wildest lands as well as isolated, rural communities – will be limited to 4G-LTE service. Higher-speed, higher-capacity 5G (fifth generation) service will not be feasible anytime soon, the report states.

“We are somewhat troubled by this newly revealed limitation on land-based communications equipment,” Janeway said. “It’s a good thing the task force is not asking to roll back existing environmental protections so that we can install yesterday’s technology, sometime in the next few years. It is very likely that satellite technology will advance to fill these gaps, both faster and less expensively. The important thing is to avoid wholesale changes in the park’s landscape to accommodate technology we won’t need in a little while.”

Meanwhile, small cell equipment can fill many important coverage gaps with enough bandwidth to provide both phone calls and data such as wireless internet services, the report states.

Janeway noted that the report calls on the state to invest in closing the cell coverage gaps by providing financial incentives to service providers and easing their access to existing utility poles. Most of the next phase of transmission equipment development will be for small cells, not tall towers. Existing utility poles and buildings can be used to host small cell transmission equipment, which can be strung along road corridors. 

Roadway Gaps Can be Closed

Most of the serious gaps are along roads between communities and between blocs of “forever wild” Forest Preserve, the report noted. In those places, there are no towers or buildings, but there are some places with utility rights of way and existing utility poles. Most of the Park’s major communities are now connected via fiber optic cables strung along highways, but even some of those installations have been delayed by disputes with the owners of existing utility poles, centering on lease conditions and rents.

Cell phone and broadband service providers reported to the task force that the owners of the poles are seeking very high connection and lease rates, pricing their coverage out of reach for local consumers.

Bi-partisan Legislation Passed, Awaits Signature

The Adirondack Council’s 2021 State of the Park Report gave a thumb-up rating to the Legislature for passing a bill (S.7028/A.2396) that would make it easier for broadband and small cell expansions to advance in all rural areas. This legislation would require utility pole owners to pay for a portion of all pole improvements and prevent them from shifting the entire replacement cost onto small cell and broadband providers. 

Under the bill, all utility poles in a village or town will be placed under one contract, creating a more efficient system for broadband service providers to gain permission for their build-out. Regulations currently require providers to obtain contracts for each utility pole they intend to use. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Michele Hinchey, D-Kingston, and Assemb. Carrie Woerner, D-Saratoga Springs, and co-sponsored by Sens. George Borrello, R-Jamestown and Dan Stec, R-Queensbury.

In the one area where the task force report recommends regulatory changes, it finds fault with the Adirondack Park Agency’s 20-year-old policy on towers and tall structures, it does so on shaky grounds.

The report states that the task force asked the anonymous opinions of cell phone providers about the APA’s policy and received anecdotal accounts of concerns over review times. The report then states “no respondent could provide specific data or case studies regarding permitting timeframes and the number of new towers commissioned annually.”

“So the report recommends actions to shorten the review period for the APA’s towers policy, which generally requires any new towers to blend in with the landscape,” Janeway said. “It has been working really well for a long time, making steady progress on the Northway, major roads and in communities, while protecting the scenic beauty of America’s greatest park.”

Don’t Blame the APA for Delays Caused by Winter

“As a matter of fact, the review period for towers could be shorter except for two things: the APA is grievously short-staffed. It had 72 staff in 1971. It has 54 today. Its job has only grown larger and more complicated. It hasn’t the personnel it needs to get the job done,” he said. “The other major factor is winter. Balloon-testing is still the best way to determine the visibility of a proposed project from public places. Towers proposed in January on sites without roads are going to have to wait until the site is accessible in May. You can call that the APA taking six months to make up its mind, but that’s not really fair.”

“With a big boost in staff and with access to technology that could improve the accuracy of its visual simulations, we don’t dispute that the APA can do the job faster in the future,” Janeway said. “But let’s not blame the APA for winter.”

“And let’s not charge ahead with changes to the APA’s successful, 20-year-old policy based on undocumented anecdotes,” Janeway added. “Either provide the means to do the job better or leave the policy alone. The APA has never denied a cell tower permit application.”

The cellular task force report also confirms that the APA hasn’t prevented tower development.   It has instead been going out of its way to provide an expedited “general permit” for installations that co-locate on or adjacent to existing equipment. It confirms that the APA must call a hearing before denying any permit request.  

The APA hasn’t called a hearing on a tower application in 14 years.            

Established in 1975, the Adirondack Council is a privately funded not-for-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park. It is the largest environmental organization whose sole focus is the Adirondacks. 

The Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy, and legal action. It envisions a Park with clean water and clean air, core wilderness areas, farms and working forests, and vibrant, diverse, welcoming, safe communities. Adirondack Council advocates live in all 50 United States.

For more information: John Sheehan, Director of Communications, 518-441-1340

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