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Mysterious big poles cause controversy in Troy

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Mysterious big poles cause controversy in Troy

“Over a dozen wooden poles standing between 60 ft. and 80 ft. tall were erected around the city of Troy last week,” News 10 ABC reported earlier this month. One pole on Third Street across from The Ruck, a popular bar in the historic downtown district, seemed to meet if not exceed that upper bound; the newscast’s repeated upward pans accentuated its comic disproportionality. “The city council wants them taken down immediately,” the station reported.

“If you look at them, they’re absolutely ridiculous,” city council president Carmella Mantello told the TV station. “We will do everything in our power to get these poles down.”

The newscast was shared at least 171 times on Facebook. The Alt shared it with a public Facebook group maintained by the Troy Neighborhoods Action Council (TNAC), a coalition of the city’s neighborhood associations, where for the next few days, an iterative fact-finding mission unfolded.

“Does anyone know what ‘telecommunications company’ they belong to?” one commenter asked early on. (The firm was not named in the story.) “Are they for cell phones? wifi? something else?”

News 10 ABC had reported—and The Alt later confirmed with Carmen Chau, the reporter herself—that, at least at the time the story ran, neither the administration nor the city council seemed to know the poles’ provenance. The story’s passive phrasing (“Large poles have popped up in Troy”) suggested not so much time-crunched reporting as widespread befuddlement among stakeholders. How could this have happened?

The Times Union soon reported that although “city officials at first were mystified,” they “soon learned a previous administration had approved [the installations] to support next-generation cellular, or 5G, networks.”

After Carmen Chau told The Alt, “It could be any cell company, really,” we emailed a handful of telecoms, asking if the poles belonged to them. Denials trickled in from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

“It may not be any one of the five you emailed,” Jim Gerace, Verizon’s chief communications officer, replied. “There are a lot of companies in the space and a handful that build ‘tower’ infrastructure and then attempt to market attachments to them.”

A spokesperson at Sprint, Roni Singleton, offered a curious denial. “I confirmed that these poles are not owned by Sprint,” she wrote, adding, “Feel free to reach out to Media@mobilitie.com for information/questions about the poles.” Singleton did not respond to a follow-up email asking if this meant that Mobilitie, a telecommunications infrastructure company based in Newport Beach, California, owned the poles.

Around the same time The Alt emailed Mobilitie to confirm their ownership, WNYT NewsChannel 13 reported that the company “put up the poles to mount equipment for cell phone networks like Sprint.” The city administration, which “didn’t necessarily agree with some of the locations and some of the [aesthetics] of them,” deputy mayor Monica Kurzejeski told the station, had put a “temporary stop” to the installations. Unbeknownst to Kurzejeski, code enforcement had “recently approved the permits,” according to the report. A meeting between Mobilitie and the administration was scheduled for an undisclosed date.

Days after acknowledging receipt of our inquiry, Mobilitie finally provided a statement on March 9th. “Mobilitie is committed to working with the local Troy jurisdiction to help provide better connectivity for citizens and the community,” it wrote. “Transport poles are the future for communities that seek intelligent ways to increase coverage and capacity quickly and efficiently for citizens. This approach delivers high-bandwidth connectivity without digging up roadways and laying costly fiber optic lines.” Such pole deployments are particularly important for delivering these services in cities, Mobilitie asserted, “where dense populations amplify network congestion issues.”

“Advancing 5G infrastructure will usher in the next wave of technology such as self-driving cars, drones, sensor networks, IoT and more,” the company added. “Mobilitie is committed to working closely with local jurisdictions to obtain the appropriate permits and entitlements for our technology deployments.”

In an email, Troy Mayor Patrick Madden’s spokesman, John Salka, did not disclose precise dates of approvals, but did mention that the city had “initiated an immediate pause” on the project earlier this month.

“The city engaged with project contractor Mobilitie to ensure the appropriate approvals and permitting requirements had been satisfied and to discuss how best to meet the concerns of the community moving forward,” Salka wrote. “The administration is looking forward to future productive discussions with Mobilitie regarding the expansion of the digital infrastructure network capacity for Troy in a collaborative effort to develop an installation plan which more appropriately fits with the historic character of Troy’s diverse neighborhoods.”

Salka did not respond to a series of follow-up questions on Thursday concerning, among other topics, whether the administration would ask the company to take down the poles it had already installed. (WNYT reported that the deputy mayor’s office “may” ask Mobilitie to do so.)

Mobilitie did not immediately respond to an inquiry on Thursday concerning the timing of approvals.  

“I, along with other Council Members, have asked for all documentation related to approvals, contracts, etc.,” Council President Mantello told The Alt in an email on Thursday. “We are awaiting all the information.”

Toward the end of the Friday workday, deputy mayor Monica Kurzejeski emailed an update on the poles, which was obtained by The Alt, to city council and administration officials. “We have met with the company, Mobilitie, twice to discuss the use, locations and height of the infrastructure that is being installed,” Kurzejeski wrote. After the first meeting “last week,” the company lowered its “request” for deployments from 23 to 17 locations.

“After our review,” the deputy mayor continued, “many of the locations will be sited on existing utility poles either owned by a different utility or by the city of Troy or on city land/infrastructure reducing the number of ‘new’ utility poles.”

“New locations have been identified for the poles on 3rd Street, Peoples [Avenue] and 115th [Street] that have generated much of the concern,” Kurzejeski added. The city “will be working with the company on the removal of the sites that have already been installed that they’ve agreed to relocate.”

A draft “License Agreement,” which “will spell out all of the terms and agreements,” will be negotiated at a meeting with the company this week, then forwarded “to the Council for review and approval for the Mayor to enter into the agreement,” Kurzejeski wrote. “We are anticipating this to be on the April [city council] agenda.”

“Permits and construction documents will be resubmitted for the new locations,” Kurzejeski wrote. This seemed to imply that the requisite permits—likely an encroachment permit from the engineering department and a building permit from code enforcement—had been previously obtained. (Kurzejeski did not immediately respond to an email sent late Sunday evening regarding the dates of these approvals.)

Dan Cohen, founder of the Cohen Law Group, a Pittsburgh-based firm that represents local governments in telecommunications matters, has closely tracked the proliferation of these “mini-cell towers,” more formally known as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) sites, which are typically installed in public rights-of-way. As Cohen’s firm detailed in a 2014 presentation, the extraordinary swell in demand for mobile broadband over the past decade has led to a concomitant increase in the quantity and types of wireless infrastructure. Mobile broadband providers need to boost their bandwidth, and “old cell towers just don’t do the trick,” Cohen told The Alt in a phone interview.

“New wireless facilities are smaller, more targeted, and much more numerous than traditional cell towers,” the 2014 presentation explains. The Mobilitie pole outside The Ruck, Cohen estimates, could have a coverage range of “anywhere from .25 miles to two miles,” depending on the strength of affixed antennas.

On March 8th, the Cohen Law Group submitted a public comment to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on behalf of a litany of Pennsylvania municipalities, opposing prospective rules outlined in a petition filed by Mobilitie this past November.  

Although federal law forbids municipalities from banning wireless facilities outright or in effect, it “also preserves local zoning authority over [their] ‘placement, construction, and modification,’” according to the 2014 presentation. Mobilitie, in filing for a declaratory ruling from the FCC, seeks to “speed the deployment of critical advanced wireless infrastructure” by stopping what it claims are “excessive and unfair rights of way fees” imposed by localities that inhibit wireless facility installations. (Cohen told The Alt that, whatever the size of these fees, they are “much, much less” than what companies like Mobilitie “would have to pay on the private market.”)

To operate in New York state, an aspirant telecom must first obtain a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) from the state Public Service Commission (PSC). Mobilitie applied for a CPCN in April 2016, and was approved as a “facilities-based provider” in July, public records show. It was not immediately clear how this timeline squared with the Madden administration’s reported assertion that a previous mayor’s office “approved the plans.” Was it possible, in other words, for Mobilitie to have secured the requisite city approvals without having the state approvals already in place? (Salka did not respond to an email sent Thursday regarding this topic.)

In any case, Mobilitie’s interest in the expeditious installation of a significant number of towers seems clear. The city of Pittsburgh recently received applications from the company for 70 new sites, according to the Cohen Law Group’s public comment.

The wireless industry, according to Cohen, estimates there are currently 150,000 DAS sites in the United States. By 2022, that figure is expected to rise to 800,000. “It’s a huge wave,” he says.

What is a local government—which might recognize the importance of upgrading dated infrastructure while also seeking to exert some degree of control over where these hulking poles are placed—to do? Cohen’s law firm has assisted municipalities in either amending existing cell phone tower ordinances or starting from scratch to give them more regulatory control over these relatively new wireless facilities. Cities might require poles to be camouflaged, for instance, or have them erected near only major arterial roads.

If the spate of confusion and rancor on Facebook over the poles’ abrupt arrival in Troy was any indication, municipalities might welcome the intervention of experts like Cohen to help them mitigate or at least conceive of the impact citizens’ ever-intensifying need for broadband will have on their built environments. But while some commenters found myriad causes for concern, others found comedic fodder.

“This is my favorite downtown mystery ever since the Uncle Sams’ heads were stolen,” one commenter wrote while the search for the company was still underway, referring to a spree of statue decapitations several years ago.

Days later, after new facts came to light but many questions remained, she added: “It’s a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in Troy politics now!”

Photo by Luke Stoddard Nathan

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