The public may never know the full impact that Tropical Storm Irene and the recent surprise autumn snowstorm had on cell service in Connecticut because cell companies are attempting to shield the details from public scrutiny.
The Connecticut Siting Council, the state agency that oversees cell towers, has asked the cell companies to respond to an in-depth questionnaire regarding the impact of the storms. However, the companies have requested a protective order be placed on the information so that it cannot be made public.
The nine-member CSC will vote on the request at its regular meeting this Thursday at 1 p.m. at Ten Franklin Square, New Britain.
The governor and other state and local officials are demanding answers and accountability from power companies and communication providers in the aftermath of the two unprecedented storms that left hundreds of thousands of residents in the dark and knocked out phone and internet service for many. Click here to read about that.
The issue of how well cell towers can weather storms is coming at the same time that Branford is facing yet another public hearing for cell tower construction—- the third in two years. The two previous towers were approved. The Nov. 29 hearing is a request by T-Mobile to build a 160-foot tower along Pleasant Point Road. However, T-Mobile has just requested a two-month postponement so the company can continue to evaluate an alternate site proposed by the town
The CSC was on the verge of getting answers to the questionnaire regarding Irene’s impact, which affected about 270 cell towers.
Linda Roberts, executive director of the CSC, told the Eagle on Oct. 28 that only one company had replied, but she was anticipating the others would answer by the Oct. 31 deadline. Roberts said she would provide the Eagle with a copy of all the results by mid-November after the information was compiled.
Then an untimely autumn snowstorm swept through the state Oct. 29, damaging about 200 towers.
Roberts said the CSC is now seeking data related to both storms. The questionnaire delves into several issues, including the number of towers that were not functional due to loss of electricity or to direct damage, the length of time the towers were out of service, and the availability of back-up batteries or generators.
The companies’ request to shield the information is on the agenda for Thursday’s CSC meeting. At least two companies sought protective orders but they have not been named.
“It will be entirely up to the council,” Roberts said, adding that they have approved some requests for protective orders in the past and denied others. Protective orders in some circumstances impair the public’s access to records as well as the right to disseminate information to the public.
When cell companies request CSC approval to build a cell tower, such information is open to the public and can be viewed on the CSC Web site. However, cell companies may be granted protective orders in some instances.
For example, cell companies usually request a protective order in matters relating to lease agreements with private property owners. In regard to the proposed Pleasant Point tower in Branford, T-Mobile requested that the dollar amount of the lease with Tilcon be redacted from public records. In its formal request to the CSC, T-Mobile claimed the information was proprietary and a “trade secret.” The request was granted.
Roberts said the council will be discussing issues pertaining to back-up battery plans for cell towers.
Branford State Rep. Lonnie Reed, the vice-chair of the assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee, has been pursuing legislation to update the way the CSC operates. She said she is particularly concerned about the number of towers that were out of commission during the storms.
“We’ve now had two back-to-back storms that disabled hundreds of cell towers and I am convinced that back-up generation needs to be on site at all cell towers in Connecticut,” Reed told the Eagle. “Keeping connected, particularly under these circumstances, is a matter of public safety.”
When asked about the efforts of cell companies to shield information about the impact of the storms, Reed said there is a definite need for “detailed, authentic information about cell tower outages.” “If the carriers have security concerns, or fear that competitors will take advantage of proprietary information, that can all be negotiated so the sensitive specifics only go to those responsible for monitoring and expediting solutions,” Reed said.
“Many of my constituents gave up their land lines, thinking that cell phones were the latest, most dependable technology,” Reed said. “No one told them that cell towers, even if they receive no storm damage, can be disabled by power outages. The carriers need to fix this problem quickly.”
Reed said there should be a change in industry standards which now require cell towers to have back-up generation for only eight to 12 hours.
Legislation that Reed introduced regarding cell tower issues overwhelmingly passed both the House and the Senate, but was not signed into law due to a technicality. Reed says that in light of the problems from the two storms, she is re-tooling the legislation to deal with the new issues. She plans to introduce the new bill at the start of the next legislative session.
Pleasant Point Proposal
In Branford, T-Mobile is seeking approval of a plan to build a 160-foot cell tower on property owned by Tilcon at 77-145 Pleasant Point Rd. Unlike other towers where several cell companies share space, T-Mobile is the only applicant at the site. The proposal calls for a battery back-up of 12 to 16 hours.
Branford and other shoreline towns have been hit by an onslaught of tower proposals as carriers attempt to meet escalating cell phone usage and to provide continuous cell service for Amtrak passengers.
Hearings were scheduled Nov. 29 at Blackstone Library, but if the CSC grants a recent request by T-Mobile, the hearing will be postponed for two months. The CSC has added the request to its agenda for this Thursday’s meeting.
Two previous hearings on the proposal were postponed. In January, T-Mobile requested a delay, claiming they would be unable to respond to questions from Branford’s consulting attorney before the hearing. In August, the town of Branford requested a postponement so that T-Mobile could examine new alternative proposals developed by the town’s cell tower consultant and Branford’s Cell Tower Advisory Committee.
With the public hearing rapidly approaching, members of the Stony Creek Association are mulling over two options that were outlined by First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos and committee Chair Doug Marsh earlier this month.
“I need to know some direction on what the neighborhood would want,” DaRos told the association. “What we have to do is try to mitigate the impact.”
The two options are a single 160-foot tower on Pleasant Point Rd. north of Dibbs Pond; or two shorter towers, one on Pleasant Point Road and one behind the West Point Park ball field on town-owned property.
DaRos, who lives in Stony Creek, said the local committee was suggesting that each of the two smaller towers be no higher than 80 feet. However, he said T-Mobile had not yet agreed to a height.
Marsh said that even if the 160-foot tower is built, there is no assurance that it would meet the carrier’s needs in the future. “We may be vulnerable to a second location anyway,” Marsh said.
In 2009, Stony Creek residents fought the proposed construction of a 75-foot cell tower at the fire station site. A CSC hearing on that proposal was never scheduled.
In response to questions about location and design of the towers, DaRos said, “If we want this technology, we better get used to ugly.”
DaRos said if the cell carriers can demonstrate a need for additional cell coverage, there is virtually no way to stop construction, except to attempt to influence the height and design. “All we can do is mitigate what we feel is offensive,” he said.
T-Mobile amended its Pleasant Point application to the CSC so that information regarding the West Point Park site can be considered at the hearing.
After lengthy discussion at the Nov. 1 meeting, a motion to support the 160-foot tower on Pleasant Point Road was defeated by a 5-4 vote of the Stony Creek Association. Discussion then centered on having two shorter towers, but no conclusion was reached.
A second motion was unanimously approved to schedule a special meeting Monday, Nov. 28 to vote on the issue so that the association can present its preferences at the hearing. Information regarding both options was sent to all Stony Creek residences.
In the meantime, efforts are continuing to bring cell service to the Short Beach neighborhood. After scrutinizing several sites in Short Beach, AT&T has been looking at a site near the Farm River in East Haven as an alternative.