Waiting game

By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter

"Yes" is the answer. But the question is "when?"

After more than five years of meetings and hearings and work, San Juan County now has a "new and improved" regulatory framework for locating digital communications sites in the San Juan islands.

But the Community Development & Planning Department says there are no applications in the pipeline to locate new cell phone towers in the county. "We've received calls" said Julie Thompson at the planning agency, "but no applications yet."

"The new statute is all we need to process cell phone antenna applications," said Shirene Hale, CDPD's lead planner. Hale says the statute makes siting easier for telecom companies to site antennas and towers, especially if the site is a "joint use" facility that includes equipment used by public safety agencies, like the Sheriff's Department or an EMT agency.

"But it's just a step," she said. "It's up to the service providers and the public safety agencies now."

One of those service providers, maybe the one best situated to make the first move, is Orcas Power and Light Cooperative. But OPALCO is at least two years away from deploying new technology on its poles and towers.

"We're compiling technical information now so that the OPALCO board can make a decision on the broadband deployment initiative, probably by the end of summer," said OPALCO Assistant General Manager Foster Hildreth, point man for the local utility's telecommunications and broadband efforts. "After the board decision, we'll be designing the infrastructure and doing the planning so we can start construction in 2013, with full deployment in 2015. At that time, communications companies, public safety agencies and OPALCO itself can co-locate antennas and other equipment on our poles."

Hildreth added, "We can provide the poles, the electricity and the backhaul capacity, but the infrastructure must work in symmetry with the other provider's technology."

And that takes time.

San Juan County's "Wireless Facilities Ordinance" was passed June 26 by the County Council with the intent to make locating cellphone antennas easier in the county, and in a manner that is "consistent with the character of island neighborhoods and the rural and scenic qualities of the islands," according to the ordinance's preamble.

In response to the expressed desire of public safety agencies for access to new technology breakthroughs, the new cellphone tower siting rules makes public safety telecommunications "essential public services" and give various preferences to siting antenna sites which are co-located with public safety communications sites.   So the answer is, "Yes, but now now."


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