The zoning board of adjustment, its expert, and residents presented T-Mobile with several options Tuesday instead of the 125-foot cell tower the carrier has proposed for the Green Knoll Volunteer Fire Company on North Bridge Street.
Options presented included enhancing current towers on Route 202/206 or placing one at the mall.
T-Mobile is requesting permission to build the tower—basically a flagpole with antennas within the pole and two GPS antennas lower down on the pole—in order to cover an estimated 1.7-mile gap in its coverage area, specifically areas on Foothill and Crim roads and North Bridge Street.
Its experts have testified that coverage in the gap area is below its 98 percent reliability standard for in-vehicle coverage.
“We have designed this for reliable coverage throughout the whole geographic area,” said Daniel Penesso, the applicant’s radio frequency expert.
But board member Evans Humenick said he believes there have to be other options.
“This seems to be a single-minded approach," he said. "The tower is actually very huge and very high up. We have an engineer who says there are other solutions. There seems to be other ways of doing this.”
Penesso explained that alternatives mentioned in previous discussions and reports did not resolve the situation or provide adequate coverage. For example, if existing equipment at Bridgewater Commons were to be used, he said, topographical elevations would block coverage.
Alternative technologies such as a distributed antenna system (DAS), which has been presented by residents at past meetings, have limitations, Penesso testified. These include requiring many “nodes” throughout the system, the potential for vandalism, the need to use vendors, lack of battery back-up and problems with emergency 911-compliance, he said.
Martinsville resident Jeff Foose said that other towns utilize DAS without those limitations.
“This board has a very serious task before it," said resident Andrew Leven. "There is a need to determine whether there is a need for coverage. What is the actual benefit to the public?”
Leven asked T-Mobile’s representatives if they would analyze whether other non T-Mobile towers could fill the coverage gap, but Penesso said that is not an option.
“There are no other existing towers in this area to remedy the gap in coverage,” Penesso said.
Resident David Robinson suggested enhancing the current T-Mobile tower on Route 202/206 at the former car dealership, and placing a second one at the ballfield near the mall or the Bridgewater Township Library. Penesso admitted those possibilities have not been tested.
“Let us hope that perhaps you could," Robinson said to applause from many of the almost 50 residents in attendance. "It might be the answer.”
Engineer Hank Menkes, president of Menkes Associates, outlined recommendations he made in a report to the zoning board. Utilizing T-Mobile’s data, he said that the proposed tower would still leave a portion of Foothill Road with insufficient in-vehicle and in-building coverage.
Menkes's recommendations included adding a third sector to the Bridgewater Commons antenna or utilizing RF heads, which are relatively small self-contained heads that can be mounted to utility poles or existing structures.
“I suggest you look at these alternatives in combination," he said. "I believe with the addition of these other options you could get coverage at the top and bottom end of Foothill Road. Between the RF heads, the options and moderate antenna re-orientation, there is the possibility that this could be a viable solution."
T-Mobile attorney Gregory D. Meese—of Price, Meese, Shulman and D’Arminio—said the zoning board should not be able to mandate certain technologies to fix coverage.
“We do not believe that the zoning board has the ability to impose a technology on the carriers,” he said. “The FCC allows the technology choice to be a choice of the carriers."
Meese also questioned the need for additional variances with the options discussed, but said he would take the comments back to T-Mobile executives.
The discussion will be continued at the board’s meeting scheduled for March 1.