Council poised to pass overhaul of wireless communication rules

By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter

Spotty cell phone coverage in the San Juan Islands, where boaters at Sucia Island get better reception than many residents of Orcas Island, might be coming to an end.

Island cell phone users, county emergency service personnel and even disgruntled whale watchers at Lime Kiln Park are being promised better cellular phone service should the San Juan County Council pass the Broadband/Emergency Services/Wireless Ordinance at a public hearing, Tuesday, June 26.

Cell phone service has been a perennial issue for residents of all islands, but communication needs of public safety personnel and emergency service providers have been a priority concern since an ad hoc citizens group was formed in 2008 to address constraints of local land-use rules on siting of communications antennas.

If approved, the pending wireless ordinance would replace regulations on siting of cellular antenna siting that went into effect in 1997.

Drawing on recommendations of the citizens group and the Planning Commission, the proposed ordinance liberalizes the permitting process that would allow for more locations for cellular service antennas, especially for antennas classified as "joint use" and those that meet aesthetic and safety design standards.

"We have gone through a long process," said Councilman Howie Rosenfeld. "There's things we might have done differently, but it's something we need to get done, especially for law enforcement, firefighters and EMTs."

But it's not a done deal quite yet.

The county council recently received notice from Verizon Cellular asserting that the proposed ordinance discriminates against cellular providers in favor of Orcas Power and Light Cooperative. The recent letter reiterates positions taken during public hearings on the ordinance earlier this year and has been reviewed by Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord.

Gaylord said that he has vetted the ordinance as well as the arguments advanced by Verizon and others in the letter and during the public hearing process. His conclusion, which he will provide to the council Tuesday, is that the ordinance "addresses the concerns expressed" by the service providers and "is ready to be passed" by the council.

Council Chairwoman Patty Miller acknowledged that "[t]here has been a question raised" about "preferential treatment." But, she said in an email, "I do not expect it will derail the ordinance which we expect to pass as early as next Tuesday."

And none too soon perhaps for islanders weary of yelling "Can you hear me now?" into their cellphones.









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