Rapp steps (lightly) onto cell carriers’ maps

Two major cellular carriers have plans for Rappahannock County.

One of the projects, approved by the board of supervisors Monday night for T-Mobile, could increase cell-signal coverage in the county by 20 percent, by one conservative estimate.

The other, already underway by AT&T, is neither an immediate nor permanent fix to the inherent connectivity issues of a geographically challenging place with a population density of 26 people per square mile. (For comparison, Fairfax County’s density is more than 100 times larger, at 2,761.) The AT&T project is actually a trial of a new technology. but could raise hopes for cellular-based broadband internet access in rural and/or hilly, heavily wooded areas — areas much like the one outside your window right now.

T-Mobile’s plans approved

After a relatively brief public hearing Monday night, the supervisors unanimously approved a permit for T-Mobile contractor NB-C to co-locate a five-antenna array at the silo-camouflaged Sprint tower on the Miller farm, just northeast of the town of Washington.

The antenna array, NB-C representative Justin Blanset told the board and a sparse crowd, would cover a significantly larger area than the existing three-antenna Sprint array (which is aimed primarily north and east, toward Sprint’s other four towers in Rappahannock).

Blanset presented a coverage map — after apologizing that such a map from T-Mobile’s RF engineering department had not yet been available on Nov. 18 when the permit application came before the planning commission, which recommended its approval nonetheless. The map appears to show that T-Mobile cellular service would be available in typically iffy- to nonexistent-signal areas: most of the village of Sperryville, Rock Mills, Laurel Mills, even parts of northernmost Woodville and Castleton that are not behind Red Oak and Bessie Bell mountains.

Source: Google Maps/AT&T
Source: Google Maps/AT&T

The supervisors, particularly Stonewall-Hawthorne district’s Chris Parrish and Jackson district’s Ron Frazier, appeared to be most concerned about where the directional microwave dish — used to augment landline data connections to the tower by connecting directly to another T-Mobile tower — would be pointed.

Responding to a question from County Administrator John McCarthy last month, Blanset had told the planning commission that the dish — which he noted does not affect or increase in any way the cellular coverage — would connect to a T-Mobile array on Hogback Mountain, in Warren County’s section of Shenandoah National Park. Instead, he said, and apologized again for his error, the microwave dish would be pointed south-southeast to a T-Mobile antenna in Culpeper, which is closer.

Frazier said he was bothered by the fact that “we seem to be dealing with an outfit that really doesn’t have the final say” on how the tower is built, “that those decisions are made for you up the line by T-Mobile.” He insisted that the permit be approved on the condition that the tower would be built according to the submitted plans and drawings, and that the county building inspector’s office would be required to confirm this.

At the November planning commission hearing, McCarthy had preceded the public comment period with a caution and reminder that the county — or any local or state jurisdiction — cannot, in accordance with the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, consider any health-related ill effects of cellular service facilities. He noted a report from County Attorney Peter Luke that cited several cases in which local jurisdictions’ decisions were overturned, including a recent case in which T-Mobile was granted the permit that Loudoun County supervisors denied them, “because the board expressly considered the health effects” as part of its decision.

The same citizens who spoke against the tower at the planning commission, Cynthia Price of Woodville (who said “it’s just not right” that health effects cannot be weighed), and Mike Luthi of Sperryville, based their objections on Monday night more on what they said would be “redundancy” of a new signal emanating from an existing cell facility. Luthi also mentioned a case in San Diego in which T-Mobile was fined for “allowing radiation to exceed the allowable limit”; McCarthy, with a copy in hand of that FCC decision, provided by Luke, clarified that T-Mobile wasn’t fined for radiation leaks, but for not properly sealing off public access to the facility, which was on a building rooftop.

McCarthy also pointed out that the zoning ordinance’s cautions against “redundancy” were meant “to bring about exactly this type of application — a co-location onto an existing facility, where no new construction will be necessary.”

AT&T’s rural broadband trial

AT&T product manager Bill Robbins said by phone this week that AT&T is testing a rural broadband internet system, based on its existing cellular towers and signals (which are available primarily in Rappahannock’s northernmost and easternmost areas). The system is designed to provide at least 10-megabit-per-second downloads and 1-Mb uploads, he said, noting that those speeds were considered “a minimum.”

AT&T will pay qualifying participants $100 to try the service for three months. Participation includes two surveys, and final approval comes only after an AT&T installer visits your house — where a separate antenna would be installed on your roof — and tests for reception.

The company is sponsoring two informational sessions next Wednesday (Dec. 16) at the Rappahannock Library, open to the public — at noon and again at 7 p.m.

Robbins said the rough area for testing would use Washington as its western edge, Flint HIll to the north, Massanova (near the intersection of Route 729 and Aaron Mountain Road) to the south and central Amissville to the east. He suggested that anyone wanting to know if their address likely qualifies for the trial, in advance of the Dec. 16 sessions, email him at wr7215@att.com, or call him at 608-216-4199.

Robbins said AT&T would like to have about 65 testers in Virginia (the trials are being run in Rappahannock and Culpeper counties), and that “a handful” of participants have already started. The new technology — Robbins wouldn’t say much about it, other than it’s based on cell technology — is also being tested in Kansas, Georgia and Alabama. All the other areas are rural, he said — but Rappahannock has the most hills, wooded areas and other geographic diversity of them all.

“We really chose Rappahannock for that reason,” he said. “We really want to test all different topographies.”