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Being late to party slowing construction of Shores cell tower


Speculation spread like wildfire through Indian River Shores last week that the much-anticipated cell tower project behind the town complex was dead. In response, clearly frustrated, Town Manager Robbie Stabe blasted the long-paralyzed Town Council and the pack of naysayers who slowed progress on the project for the pickle the Shores now finds itself in.

For more than a decade, Shores residents have muddled through daily life with weak, spotty cell service, but the “not in my back yard” folks repeatedly blocked efforts to build a tower back when the market for smartphones was exploding and carriers were fighting hard for customers by touting better coverage, and faster Internet and data streaming.

Every time town residents who feared the sight of a tower would destroy their quality of life hired a lawyer and the town received a letter threatening litigation, the council lost its nerve and the project was shelved.

Faced with lost police and medical calls over computers in patrol cars, the Shores Public Safety Department invested in signal boosters for all its vehicles, just to be able to function. Many residents also purchased signal boosters to be able to use cellphones inside their homes.

But realtors complained that the lack of decent cell service was running buyers off – especially younger buyers or semi-retired people trying to telecommute or still operate a business or professional practice. It made the town look backward.

The lack of this important amenity was a deal-breaker on some very big real estate deals, John’s Island Real Estate broker-owner Bob Gibb and others told the Town Council during the endless public hearings on the tower.

Meanwhile, the world was changing while the Shores stood still.

The market became saturated with smartphones. Every 10-year-old and every 80-year-old has one now, and phone numbers are portable from carrier to carrier. Service providers are no longer arguing over who has better coverage. The war now is over price.

On June 23, the Wall Street Journal reported, “The consumer-price index for wireless phone service, an indicator of current offers from cellphone service providers, dropped 12.5 percent in May from a year ago, according to the Labor Department. The index was down 13 percent in April, the largest decline in the history of the category. ... Beyond the consumer impact, the rapid collapse in the industry’s pricing power will ripple through its profit margins, federal regulations and antitrust law. “

Lower profits for service providers mean less money to invest in costly annual tower leases – or any new tower leases, for that matter.

Stabe wrote to the council Friday afternoon, in response to a flurry of rumor-fueled questions, “I feel it is important to remind Council that during the two-plus years Council spent obtaining propagation studies . . .  [holding] workshops with residents intent on doing away with the tower idea, and . . .  [arguing] about the cell tower location/type/height/etc., there was a major shift in the cell-tower industry.

“Out of nowhere, all the major carriers decided they were no longer going to pay $3,000 to $5,000 or more per month for cell tower space. Datapath was looking at around $4,000 to $4,500 per month for the top spot. At this point, tower companies are lucky if they can get $2,000/month for the top location. This significantly affected our situation,” Stabe said in his email.

The town already renegotiated its contract with Datapath to take a lesser cut of the lease revenues. “It’s never really been about the money – it’s about the service,” Stabe said.

Technology has also changed. In states like Florida, micro transmitters are now legal on every utility pole on the public right of way, and those are much cheaper and quicker to build.

“Datapath cannot legally start building the tower without at least one carrier signed on to rent space. We are completely at the mercy of the carrier at this point,” Stabe said. “Fortunately, they budgeted to get on our tower, that alone speeds up the process by one fiscal year. However, they are also working on renting space on hundreds of other cell towers across the nation and while ours is in the pile with all the others, we don’t know where it is or when they will sign the lease.”

Stabe said he has confirmed all of this with industry experts, including a town resident in the business – as well as the consultants the town hired, at the behest of the naysayers – to ensure that Shores residents were not getting ripped off.

There is some good news, however. The first interested carrier – Verizon, according to town officials who let that name slip during a council meeting last month, despite the fact that information was supposed to be kept hush-hush –   has taken a look-see at the Shores site, and at the plans.

“They sent one of their own environmental engineers to view the tower site last month to locate the Public Safety fuel tanks and the closest electrical transformer,” Stabe said. “Then earlier this week, the carrier requested a copy of the environmental survey that Datapath obtained over a year ago. So, there is movement and movement is a good sign.”

Stabe promised to tell the Town Council the minute that first carrier signs and the tower is officially a go. The town has already budgeted the $150,000 cash for its portion of the construction of the 115-foot stealth monopine tower that will look like a massive Christmas tree. Construction is expected to take 60 to 90 days when and if final permits are in place.