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I think there's a huge need for more of the Park to be covered, and I think the carriers realize that…

Cell tower boom slows in Adirondacks

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The cell tower building boom in the Adirondacks has slowed this year. Applications to the Adirondack Park Agency are down - the agency has only issued nine permits or amendments for cell projects as of early October.

That's a big drop when compared to last year: 28 projects, and 2009, when the APA approved 27. Despite the trend, cell service providers say they're still planning to grow their wireless networks in the Park. Chris Knight reports.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

Although there are another nine applications still pending before the agency this year, APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the overall number of cell projects is down.

"The applications just haven't been coming in as frequently," he said.

The number of cell tower projects approved this year is more in line with what the agency was seeing five years ago. That was before a spike in cell tower development - 81 projects over the last four years - that was triggered in part by a push by politicans and the public for improved cell coverage in the Park, especially along a remote 47-mile stretch of the Adirondack Northway where cell service was nonexistent.

Coverage along the Northway has now improved, and new cell tower development has since spread further into the Park's hamlets and along its other busy road corridors.

But are this year's lower numbers of applications a sign that that development is slowing down?

Based on APA staff's conversations with cell companies, McKeever said he thinks this may just be a lull. 

"They do have plans for additional sites, but we haven't seen them yet, McKeever said. "Maybe they're still in the planning phases or maybe the slowdown in the overall economy has something to do with it. But we do know, or they indicate that they have comprehensive plans and they're going to be looking at covering more of the interior state highways and travel corridors, but we just haven't seen those applications yet."

Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile have been the primary wireless companies working in the Park over the last few years. Representatives of all three provided statements that said they're planning to continue to build or improve their wirless networks in the Park.

John O'Malley is a spokesman for Verizon Wireless:

"We continue to invest as much in our network every year as much as we have for the last 10 plus years," he said. "The recession has not impacted that at all."

Independent Towers of Latham has worked with some of the carriers, most recently AT&T, to develop new cell tower sites in the Adirondacks. Based on what he's heard, company vice president Kory Fretto said he thinks the spread of cellular service thoughout the Park will continue:

"I think there's a huge need for more of the Park to be covered, and I think the carriers realize that," he said. "The budgets are what they are every year, and sometimes the carriers get behind. It's just going to take some time. I don't think they've stopped focusing on the Park, it's just slow and steady."

The growth of cell service in the Park comes despite the fact that its more expensive to build towers here. Having to disguies a tower as a white pine tree, which the APA requests in some cases to make the structure less visible, can add tens of thousands of dollars to a project.

State Sen. Betty Little, who's been pushing for improved cell coverage in the Adirondacks for years, said the added cost of doing business in the Park is one of her biggest concerns. She said there are still many parts of the Park that need cell service.

"We have made progress but there's still a long ways to go," Little said. "We do not have complete cell coverage. I still have not given up. I'm very hopeful that we're going to continue to get more cell coverage."

None of the cell carriers contacted for this story would give specifics on how many more projects they're planning in the Park, or where. There are currently nine applications pending before the APA, five are from Verizon and four from AT&T.

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