Fenwick mulls cell tower options (though they’re not really towers)

Verizon Wireless wants to improve mobile coverage across coastal Delaware. This month, Verizon engineers designed two proposals to boost signals in Fenwick Island. (They only presented concept plans, but did not submit permit requests, which Fenwick will require for wireless infrastructure.)

Traditionally, when thinking of wireless antennas, people think of tall “macro” towers that reach long distances. But Verizon and other wireless companies are now proposing “small-cell” antennas to boost the signal. That includes canister antennas or panel antennas, usually just a few feet tall, attached to utility poles.

“We have seen an exponential growth in the data usage in wireless coverage for the last few years,” said Verizon’s Bonnie Metz, estimating 50-percent increase in data usage in 2017, due to Verizon’s unlimited data plans and heavy cell phone usage. “We need to add capacity to the network to stay ahead of the demand and to fill gaps in capacity that we’re seeing now. It’s kind of like if you have more traffic, you need more traffic lanes or you’re gonna get a backup.”

Mobile data is used to send multimedia text messages, such as those with photos and video. It also allows cell phones and tablets to access the internet anywhere, without the use of Wi-Fi.

Metz asked for feedback at the Fenwick Island Town Council workshop on Aug. 30.

Design 1 had two 60-foot poles, both in town limits, at town hall and at the Coastal Highway/James Street intersection.

Design 2 had five poles, although only one is in Town limits, with the others in unincorporated Sussex County, including at the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce office and on Route 54.

At the council’s request, Metz will research a third design: five poles, but with the Essex Street pole at town hall instead.

Where possible, Verizon will use existing poles or replacements, rather than adding clutter to the street. For comparison, poles would be about the same height or shorter than existing Delmarva Power electric poles, Metz estimated.

Using 4G, preparing  for 5G

“Our goal right now is to get 4G coverage as best we can for the whole town,” said Mayor Gene Langan.

“You could do that with two poles,” Metz said. “Putting five poles up now, in my view, is going to position the town better for 5G than just the two poles, because we’re already going to have the infrastructure in place.”

These are the fourth and fifth generations of mobile network technology, each producing a faster wireless network.

In the future, the 5G network will be almost instantaneous but will require more antennas closer to each other and to the ground. Antenna designs are also getting smaller as the technology improves.

No one in the U.S. is using “real” 5G yet. Verizon will introduce it to a few major cities in 2019, then expand over the next few years. Plus, Verizon will invest in early 5G upgrades where infrastructure is ready to go, Metz said.

Residents who supported the five-pole idea encouraged the town council to be forward-thinking, since 5G will arrive in a matter of years. At that time, engineers will propose antenna locations based on future use and technology.

“Anything out there that you’re seeing right now are 4G. … We haven’t put them up anywhere,” Metz said of the 5G equipment. “Everything you’re seeing right now is densification of the 4G network to deal with the capacity issues we’re having.”

The entire coastal area could use a signal boost, so Verizon is also addressing spotty locations around Bethany Beach and Route 26.

Public debates the locations

Council Member Roy Williams said he was hesitant about increasing antennas, partly because he doesn’t want his grandchildren staring at their phones during family vacation.

“I’m like you. When I go on vacation, I don’t want my phone to work,” Metz said. “But statistics show that 83 percent of millennials, when they go to look at a house,” rank cell phone signal as the most important factor when house-hunting, right after school rankings.

“Several Realtors have told me they can’t several really expensive houses in North Bethany because they don’t have coverage,” said Langan.

Resident Barbara Ievoli said mobile access is important for houseguests or family who want to work remotely at the beach.

“5G’s gonna be here before you know it, and I think it’s in our interest and the town’s best interest to look at the long-term plan,” said Ievoli, who previously worked in government. “We put two poles in now, and we’re going to be here next year because 5G is coming. … You have to look at where we’re going in Fenwick. We don’t want to be left behind.”

Other residents agreed, including a former Verizon employee.

Fenwick is having this discussion with Verizon, but not AT&T or Sprint, because the Fenwick Island Police Department uses Verizon for its communications, from cell phones to the patrol car computers. After dropping enough emergency calls and losing connection while downloading arrest records for traffic stops, Town Hall called Verizon for help, just as the company was brainstorming potential improvements to overall beach service.

This spring, Verizon installed a temporary booster antenna at Town Hall, which was mainly to help police who need coverage across the town.

Customers who still suffer poor service can call their provider to report the problems and find solutions.

Discussion on Aug. 30 bogged down as people suggested that a pole “here or there” would guarantee better service for certain parts of town. But Metz emphasized that either plan she presented would cover the entire town, filling all the gaps in service.

Metz will report back to Fenwick Island with updated proposals.

By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter