Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Sen. Stec: Updating Adirondacks’ cell tower policy is essential


By NYS Sen. Dan Stec

As Senator, I rely on the input of my constituents to advance policies that will improve our communities. To that end, I recently sent out a survey relating to cell service in the Adirondack Park. That survey can also be taken here, at my Senate website.  If we’re to ensure our region is up-to-date with the needs of our residents, action on the issue of cellular service is essential.

A lot has changed in 21 years.

Wars began and ended. Google went public in 2004. Facebook was founded that same year.

Scientists mapped the human genome. Rovers traversed Mars. Apple launched its first iPhone.

Amid all that change and technological upheaval, one thing has remained stagnant: the regulation of cellular technology in the Adirondack Park. 

It was in 2002 when the Adirondack Park Agency adopted its telecommunications policy, mandating that towers achieve “substantial invisibility.”

Ever since, those two words have defined technological development throughout a region roughly the size of Vermont.

It’s a phrase that, too often, results in towers that lack the height to project a signal as far as they could. It’s a phrase that drives up costs for providers, who in turn pass those charges on to customers, if they choose to invest in the region at all. Ultimately, it’s a phrase that, if modernized, could make the Adirondacks a safer, more prosperous place for its inhabitants and visitors.

Add to that an APA pre-application process that, according the a report issued in 2021 by the Upstate Cellular Taskforce, averages more than six months, and it’s easy to see why dead zones are a way of life in the Adirondacks.

Just 62 percent of adults in the U.S. owned a cell phone in 2002, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, that number is greater than 97 percent.

As Americans go cellular, the number of homes with landlines has dropped. By 2017, 51 percent of U.S. households were without a landline, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health.

In Franklin County, 72 percent of 911 calls received in 2022 by the local dispatch center originated from a cellular device, local officials report. County officials throughout the park reported significant increases over the past decade in the share of calls seeking emergency service made on a cellular device.

State officials have long known the important role cellular service plays in public safety. In 2007, a 63-year-old Brooklyn man froze to death on Interstate 87 near North Hudson after his vehicle became snowbound. His wife spent hours attempting to dial 911, but failed to get a signal.

In response, the state, including the APA, focused on expanding cell service along I-87, closing many of the gaps and rendering the wired emergency phones, in place since 1986, obsolete. State Police announced earlier this year the removal of the remaining wired call boxes on I-87 after so few motorists used them.

Even so, the Cellular Taskforce found long stretches of state routes 8, 28 and 3 were without service. In January, the state Transportation Department wheeled in mobile cell towers ahead of the FISU World University Games in Lake Placid and North Creek so the international cadre of athletes and spectators would have service.

Clearly, the lack of service is no secret to anyone.

The facts are clear: Cell phone technology is a necessity, one that must not be hindered by regulatory policy that has failed to evolve to meet current demands.

Under state law, the APA is charged with the protection and preservation of the region’s “unique scenic” vistas and “open space.” Nowhere, however, does the law establishing the agency dictate anything specific about cell towers.

The agency’s policy is rooted in an interpretation of the general mandate handed down by lawmakers in 1972.

But interpretations, like the technology, have changed significantly since 2002. There’s greater awareness among all stakeholders about the plight of towns within the Blue Line. Housing affordability, low wages, and a lack of private sector year-round jobs are a regular focus now.

Cellular technology is at the heart of all future development within the Adirondacks. Of greater concern, the lack of cellular coverage along the highways and roads throughout the park is a legitimate threat to the health and safety of the park’s residents and visitors alike.

Like flip phones from 2002, APA’s tower policy is an anachronism in dire need of an update.

Dan Stec is state senator of NYS’s 45th Senate District

Adirondack Almanack file photo

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

16 Responses

  1. Eric says:

    Bruh, I live in Gansevoort and there’s no cell service even down here. Not a single bar (Verizon). When the power or wifi goes out I can’t even text my boss to tell her what happened. Can we start here?

  2. Alan West says:

    There should be bipartisan legislation that bypasses the APA to allow what ever is needed to provide cell phone service to all Adirondack residents.

  3. Longplayer says:

    Actually, flip phones, in the guise of “foldable” phones are the newest technology. It’s “Back to the Future” all over again. That aside, wilderness and a beautiful view are hard to replace when tall cell towers and wind turbines are installed.

  4. Melissa Heshmat says:

    Even though we have a direct line-of-sight to the Verizon repeater tower on Paleface Mountain, my just out of the box yesterday Medtronic Pacemaker Monitor can not get a signal to send my data to the doctors. Yes, we need better technology and support or somebody will die!

  5. In my experience, there is little to no cell service along the Route 3 corridor between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake. When we go into camp, our family (and everyone else, I presume) has to plan for that. It is only after we actually get on Middle Saranac that we actually have service. Even there, it’s not consistently or dependably available everywhere. There is also a long cell service dead zone along the Route 3 corridor between Tupper Lake and up beyond Star Lake. We can install danger & channel buoys (some of them with blinking lights visible from across the lakes, all night) all over our lakes to mark rocks & channels for the safety of boaters, but we cannot install sufficient cell service towers necessary to provide reliable communications links across the region for the safety of everyone. It seems to me that somewhere within that regulatory logic are some glaring inconsistencies.

  6. Sandra says:

    Here’s an idea Dan – you are the legislative branch of government, albeit in a longstanding minority. You come up with legislation and finding in the finding through the budget to encourage cell tower companies to build more, smaller towers combined with small cell technology along roads to improve service in the park. Taller towers does not equal better service. That’s cell tower 101 Senator. Our unique topography in the park doesn’t allow for great distances of coverage, so other technologies beyond just “tall towers” are needed. The cell tower companies are a business more than they are a public utility and the bottom line matters to them. They won’t build any tower if it costs $400,000 and serves 5 people. Do your job and incentivize them to be creative with other forms of technology without ruining the viewshed of the park.

    • Rob says:

      So after reading your comment you think us taxpayers should pay more in taxes, so your government can offer “incentives” for companies to build cell towers?? How about our elected officials tell these companies the towers are needed and see if they can be built without “incentives”. There are places all over the ADK’s where towers could be added and not ruin your “viewshed of the park”.

  7. Dan Way says:

    I have worked and lived in the heart of the Adirondack Park for over 40 years, and have been frustrated by the inadequate cell service for most of that time. I recall hitting a deer on a February night in North River about 20 years ago that took out the headlights and front bumper of my car. I couldn’t reach emergency services or my wife with my flip phone to get help, so I had to drive my car without headlights while dragging one end of the bumper along the road for almost 30 miles.

    I remember how happy I was when it was announced that a cell tower would be placed on the hill overlooking the town of Indian Lake, just 3 miles from my home, and how disappointed I was when the tower was so short that it didn’t reach my neighborhood. The tower hill is in the center of the town, which is the most populous area in Hamilton County, but thanks to the environmentalists’ uncompromising position, it doesn’t even reach the outskirts of the town!

    I have to believe that putting taller towers in the towns and hamlets would save lives and enhance safety and local economies without ruining the unique atmosphere within the Blue Line. And as the ravages and challenges of climate change create more stress on the region in the coming decades, the importance of adequate communication within the Adirondack region will only increase.

  8. Brian Wells says:

    Nice picture, Is it inside the blue line?

  9. Boreas says:

    I wonder if places like the ADK Park would ultimately be better served by supporting Star Link technology in light of the inefficient, poor quality cellular technology in remote, mountainous areas. Any thoughts Dan?

    • tim says:

      Star Link is a game changer for home/business internet (and cell phone use) but you can’t carry the satellite dish around with you even though it’s smaller than typical satellite dishes.

      • Boreas says:

        Good point. I wouldn’t expect it to replace cell phones altogether – but more for emergencies and emergency services – like older satellite phones. An OPTION in other words that doesn’t require spoiling our mountaintops. But perhaps a foldable dish in the trunk for travel through remote areas would help. RVs use them on the roof – just unsightly. And preferably, it could only be used when stopped! The last thing we need is people blabbing on their phones through our mountain passes. I just feel the idea of creating a seamless cellular blanket in mountainous areas is flawed from the beginning.

        Many roads already have telephone/power poles along their length. Perhaps they can they be used for repeater technology like is sometimes done with WiFi in certain areas. I have seen something similar in Spring Pond Bog area. I don’t know how well it works, but again, could be a solution for emergency use. Maybe just a drop-down USB cord you plug into! Great for us Android guys!

        I think we need to think about cellular use in general. Distracted driving has overtaken drunk driving for causes of traffic crashes. Is it really smart/desirable to have continuous and seamless cellular coverage in areas of narrow roads, limited visibility, pedestrians, wildlife, and rare rock falls? Comm stations like on the Northway may not be a bad idea at pull-offs, parking areas, and trailheads.

  10. Ed Harstead says:

    Senator Stec has oversimplified the debate.

    He has framed the debate as safety vs. scenery. As commenter Sandra proposes, a larger number of smaller towers can provide service. These “small cells” are already widely deployed by mobile operators in more densely populated areas. Why? Because it suits their business needs.

    How do we make Adirondack small cells suit a mobile operator’s business? As Adirondackers know, fixed line broadband operators have always shunned rural areas. But now they are falling all over themselves to serve them. Why? Because the federal government is providing subsidies. Similarly, promoting Adirondack cell coverage that does not forever mar its landscape is an obvious role for New York State. It does not have to be safety vs. scenery, but safety and scenery. And so I call on Senator Stec to take a more expansive view on solutions.

  11. Steve B. says:

    I suspect that long before any amendments to the state constitution is made to allow more tracts of hill top forest to be cut to allow tower construction, the technology will have moved on to satellite capable phones. Of course everybody will bitch and moan that they have to lay out cash for this new technology. It does get you what you are complaining about, no service.

  12. Patricia Leavy says:

    I live in Thurman, New York, and the Adirondacks. We have absolutely no cell phone coverage up here at all. I it is an extreme safety hazard. Especially in bad weather. There is no connect. Connectivity to cell phone towers, except for a couple of limited locations. I myself had to contact 911 and it was unintelligible with the sheriffs department. They couldn’t hear me on the phone and they were getting annoyed at the fact that the phone call was broken up. I had to call back three times because it was hung up on twice. If anybody has a car accident up here and is off the road in a ditch,covert or in dire need of medical assistance, it is impossible to get in contact with any first responders or the police department.

    Back in 2019 AT&T change their cell phone towers from 2G and 3G to 4G LTE. 4G LTE does not work in the mountainous areas. I have been in contact with AT&T constantly about this problem. There seems to be nobody. I can talk to about this issue unless I want to put a cell phone tower on my own property. I would do that, but I think the APA would not allow this. We do have to rely on our own Wi-Fi in order to use our cell phones. I did have a landline through Verizon but I do believe at this point it is about $125 a month. I am disabled, and This is a very dangerous situation up here in the Adirondack mountains.

    I have in the past contacted this office, but apparently I can’t get in touch with Dan Stec. I am constantly pushed off to other people who have no authority to do anything about this dire situation! This is unfair and dangerous to the taxpayers

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