As Poor Cell Coverage Continues, Purcellville Council Eyes New, Taller Tower

Facing years-long complaints about the poor cell coverage experienced by many Purcellville residents, town are looking for ways to address the concerns.

Since at least 2015, residents on the south end of town, specifically those in the Hirst Farm neighborhood, have reported disruptions in their cellular coverage. While some residents have added hotspots in their homes to make calls, others—including Vice Mayor Ryan Cool—say they have to drive to the other side of town to do so.

Town Information Technology Director Shannon Bohince said that area is in a low spot. “They’re more affected than anyone else,” he said.

“When I have to have a critical phone call for work … I go to [Loudoun Valley High School] and I take the call from the parking lot,” Cool said. “I literally cannot take a call from my house.”

Cool also told the council that he’s received numerous emails from his neighbors asking what the town would do to help solve the problem. He said that one resident mentioned they had “to sit in a certain way” in their kitchen to make a “spotty phone call.”

“We have got to come up with a solution,” Cool said.

While these kinds of problems have existed for years, Bohince said that residents are now speaking up about it because of additional cell disruptions caused by the temporary relocation of cell antennas as part of the water tower renovations that began in June.

Aside from inconveniencing residents, town leaders are approaching poor cell coverage as a public safety concern. According to a Feb. 13 staff report and the town’s Capital Improvement Program, first responders are sometimes misdirected when responding to emergencies because 911 calls are routed through cell towers in Hamilton.

While Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Public Information Officer Laura Rinehart said that the county has experienced “nothing significant” in terms of dropped or misdirected 911 calls, she did say that first responders do sometimes experience gaps in radio coverage.

According to Wendy Wickens, the director of the county’s Department of Information Technology, the county government recently conducted a study to identify where exactly these gaps are. She said that her department would be analyzing the results throughout the next three to six months before briefing the Board of Supervisors on the matter.

Recently retired Police Lieutenant Joe Schroeck said that the town’s police officers have also experienced coverage loss with the mobile data terminals in their cruisers when driving in the southern part of town. “It kind of makes it harder for us,” he said.

To help fix these coverage problems, the town has initiated a project that will eventually see the construction of a $280,000, 175-foot-tall cell tower at the Basham Simms Wastewater Facility, which is located directly behind Hirst Farm.

A feasibility study recently conducted by SKT Solutions showed that the tower would be beneficial because smartphone data traffic is supposed increase from 5.1 gigabytes per phone per month in 2016 to 25 gigabytes by 2022.

The Town Council last month authorized the staff to initiate Zoning Ordinance amendments aimed to increase the maximum height of cell towers from 125 to 175 feet on publicly-owned property to get the ball rolling on the project.

Bohince said that while the tower would be built to handle six carrier antennas, only three or four are likely to be installed. He said that those four could be Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint. “It would really be up to the carriers,” he said.

Bohince said that leasing spots to four carriers could provide the town with $6,000 each month in revenue. Because the tower would be located on the wastewater facility property, that revenue would go toward reducing the nearly $31 million in wastewater utility debt.

The town’s Planning Commission is looking to schedule a public hearing on the cell tower’s zoning possibly at its Aug. 16 meeting.

Additionally, Bohince said that when the water tower renovations are done, the cell carrier antennas would be higher and hopefully provide residents with better coverage town wide.

For now, the town is urging residents to contact their carriers if they experience cell coverage problems.

“It is absolutely essential that we energize the community to engage the carriers directly,” Councilman Tip Stinnette said. “Without that engagement, staff doesn’t have the clout to carry it through to get some kind of corrective action done.”

pszabo@loudounnow.com

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