OCEAN CITY – The Town of Ocean City is considering whether to enter into a franchise agreement allowing for the addition of a city-wide antenna system that ultimately should improve cellular bandwidth and signal strength during peak times.
On Monday evening, the Mayor and City Council held a public hearing to consider a request by Crown Castle, Inc. to install a Distributed Cellular Antenna System (DCAS) within City right-of-ways.
Crown Castle is proposing 93 DCAS node locations within Ocean City. The majority of installations will be on Delmarva Power and Light (DP&L) poles, which are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission. However, Crown Castle has also requested to place some installations on the Boardwalk and other city-owned structures.
According to Rebecca Hunter of Crown Castle NG Atlantic, Crown Castle provides wireless carriers with the infrastructure they need to keep people connected and businesses running.
Currently, Crown Castle operates approximately 40,000 towers, 13,000 small cell nodes and 6,000 miles of fiber. Nationwide, it has over 450 existing agreements with jurisdictions and over 300 existing agreements with utility companies. The company bills itself as the nation’s largest provider of shared wireless infrastructure.
Crown Castle has been in business for over 20 years and has grown to be a Fortune 1000 Company. The total enterprise is valued at more than $30 billion and customers include the wireless communications companies of Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless.
“Have you even been in a situation where you have full bars on your phone, yet you can’t place a call, send a text, or watch a video?,” Hunter asked. “Over 56 percent of Americans now use smartphones, and as that number continues to rise, wireless congestion will be a more common occurrence.”
Wireless congestion happens when too many people try to use the same cell site at once. With increased data usage that extra demand can quickly overload a cell sites capacity, Hunter stated. The best way to relieve wireless congestion is to add new infrastructure, and new innovations like small cells allow the addition of capacity in densely populated or high traffic areas.
For example, Philadelphia’s large population, tourism industry and proximity to other major metro areas created a need for shareable high-preforming wireless infrastructure that could support a variety of innovative voice and data services for local residents and handle frequent surges in traffic from visitors.
The new network also had to adhere to the city’s requirement, including preserving the surroundings of its historic district, Hunter furthered. Crown Castle deployed a small cell solution with hundreds of nodes that enabled Wireless Service Providers (WSPs) to add capacity needed to handle a growing wireless user base, significant traffic surges and the addition of new services.
According to Hunter, Crown Castle was approached by their wireless communications customers about a need to improve cellular bandwidth in Ocean City, especially during the summer months with the town’s population dramatically increases.
“We work closely with our customers who figure out where there is a need when they monitor their system and identify where needs are. Our customers came to us saying they have capacity and coverage concerns in this area,” she said.
Hunter acknowledged a concern over Radio Frequency (RF) emissions. According to studies, even if you’re right next to a tower or node, cellular RF output is significantly lower than what Federal Communication Commission (FCC) guidelines permit.
At ground level, the RF levels are not significantly different from background signals in urban areas, such as TV and radio signals, and for these reasons, most scientists agree that there are no adverse health effects from cellular signals.
Off the bat, Council President Lloyd Martin recognized the council’s concerns over the esthetics of the nodes.
“I understand there is a need for more data. I have two young boys and it seems like 15 GB a month is not enough and that used to be what we used in a year 10 years ago,” he said.
Councilman Tony DeLuca asserted he is concerned over nodes being located in Ocean City’s residential communities.
“No one really knows the long-term effects. I know the closer you get to the node and radio frequency the more dangerous it is. I also know it doesn’t penetrate roofs, it doesn’t penetrate brick, it doesn’t penetrate concrete but it penetrates glass, and if people are on balconies or outside there is a concern there,” he said.
Crown Castle Engineer JD McCloskey agreed with DeLuca there have not been any long-term studies regarding long-term effects of RF emissions.
“However, these things that we all have in our pockets [cellphones] output the same frequency in a much higher power then you’re ever going to get from one of the towers,” he said. “The closer you are to the antennas the less these [cellphones] have to power up to communicate back to those towers, so the emissions that you receive are drastically higher coming from the mobile that you have on your persons then from the communication towers or from a DAS node in the area.”
In response to a series of Mayor Rick Meehan’s questions, City Solicitor Guy Ayres commented the Town of Ocean City has the right to deny the request but must give specific reasons as to why and within a limited timeframe.
“You can’t arbitrarily say no. They have the rights to be able to do this because they are protected under the Federal Communications Act,” Ayres said.
The mayor clarified, just as the town’s cable franchise agreement with Comcast is not exclusive, the same goes for Crown Castle.
Ayres added, just like Comcast pays the town franchise fees the same would go for a franchise agreement with Crown Castle.
“They don’t get to use city facilities for free, so we can negotiate with them what they are going to pay us for each location that is a municipal-owned facility,” he said.
The mayor also pointed out a franchise agreement would also be beneficial in the town determining where the nodes would be placed as well as the design of them.
Councilman Wayne Hartman made a motion to remand the request to staff to prepare a franchise agreement that will include node designs, locations and rates to return to the Mayor and City Council for further discussion and a potential approval.
“It is going to be difficult for me for you to use our city for your privately owned company. I will want to see some very reasonable pricing in exchange for our facilities. I want this to be revenue producing for the Town of Ocean City, and I am going to want to see data of what you charge other jurisdictions. We have to protect ourselves here. Right now, I am very concerned about this,” Council Secretary Mary Knight said prior to the vote.
The City Council voted unanimously to approve the motion.
“When you need the coverage at peak times, this will provide capacity for our community but it has to be done right, and I think we are on the right track,” Councilman Dennis Dare said.