Following at least four years of cellular coverage problems plaguing hundreds of Purcellville residents, the town is on track to provide a more permanent solution.
The Town Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously to direct the town staff to create an implementation plan for the design and construction of a 125- to 175-foot-tall cell tower to be located on the Basham Simms Wastewater Facility that will improve cellular signal strength, patch coverage gaps and provide the town with improved water meter reading and police radio systems—along with bringing in more revenue via cellular carrier leases.
The drive to advance plans for a new cell tower comes nine months after residents in the Hirst Farm and Locust Grove neighborhoods in the southwestern portion of town began experiencing additional problems with poor cellular coverage.
In June 2018, when the town initiated repairs to the Maple Avenue water tower, the AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon cell antennas located atop the tower, 205 feet above ground, were moved to a temporary tower that now has them perched anywhere from 110-150 feet in the air. The antennas’ lower height has given many residents in the southern part of town headaches when making phone calls.
Councilman Nedim Ogelman said that also created safety problems because residents haven’t just had their calls dropped, but they often are unable to make calls.
“There is a significant likelihood that people trying to reach 911 services from that neighborhood might not be able to get through,” he said. “That is the dominant grounds for pursuing it.”
Police Chief Cynthia McAlister also said the weak cell coverage is a major concern. “That’s one of my big worries … is having calls dropped and us not being able to get to people,” she said.
Vice Mayor Ryan Cool said that because of the coverage issues, many parents have been unable to get a hold of their children and teleworkers have had to leave their homes and drive to areas of town that have better coverage to conduct business.
The town has been looking to install a new cell tower at the Basham Simms property, which abuts the Hirst Farm community, since 2017. If the town installs one there, it would be on ground that’s 41 feet higher than the ground where the Maple Avenue water tower stands.
According to a September 2017 staff report, a 125-foot cell tower would cost $198,805 to install, while a 175-foot tower would cost $233,533.
Staff members estimate that if it charges each of the four cellular carriers $1,500 per month to sit atop the new tower, with a 5 percent lease increase every five years, it would pull in $360,000 in the first five years and $378,000 between years six and 10.
That would allow the town to break even on a 175-foot tower by the end of the fourth year, with an additional $54,467 in profit at that point. For a 125-foot tower, the town could break even by the end of the third year and pocket an additional $17,195 of profit.
By year 10, the town could net up to $540,000 of profit through leasing space to cellular carriers, which could be used to pay down the town’s $30 million of wastewater debt, according to the report.
Aside from providing residents and businesses with improved cellular coverage, a new tower could also act as an extension of a town-wide broadband initiative that began with a pilot program at the Fireman’s Field complex in October 2017. If the cell tower is built and the town installs its own antennas on it, residents in that area could have access to free WiFi and town staff could get its own private radio network.
As for the cellular antennas that were moved from the water tower last summer, Suez Water Systems Consultant Brad Brown said in October that they could be re-installed as early as March.
The town staff will present council members with its implementation plan for the new cell tower at the April 9 Town Council meeting.