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California Company Alarms CT Towns With Letters Proposing 120-Foot 'Utility Poles'

 California Company Alarms CT Towns With Letters Proposing 120-Foot 'Utility Poles'

Hartford Courant, Sept. 20, 2016

By Jordan Otero

When the letter arrived in late July, Cheshire Town Manager Michael Milone was taken aback by its contents.

The letter was from a California company named Mobilitie, notifying the town that it intended to deploy a network of hybrid data-specific cell towers in an expansion that included Cheshire. "It was a very offensive letter," Milone said. "They just basically said, '[We] have this authority, but we want to know who we can work with in your town so we can collaborate efforts. ... It was out of nowhere. ... The way they did it, as much as anything else, made it suspicious and made it distrustful."

And there were other letters, to other towns across Connecticut, from Mobilitie. In many, the company detailed plans to install 120-foot "utility poles" at precise locations. In a 17-page letter, dated July 25 and addressed to Simsbury Director of Public Works Thomas Roy, Mobilitie proposed a 120-foot "micro-cell utility pole" at the intersection of Hoskins Road and Ely Lane, off Hopmeadow Street. The intersection abuts the Ely Place apartment complex. "As they will not be used for voice transmission [Mobilitie is] attempting to circumvent the CT Siting Council's jurisdiction over cellular telephone towers," Roy said in a letter of his own to town officials. "Further, they believe that these towers are utility poles and can therefore be placed in the town's [right-of-way]. These towers are not telephone poles and will be made of steel with a height of 120' and a base diameter of 40'." The average height of utility poles in Connecticut range from 40- to 45-feet tall.

The Mobilitie letter said the new structure is intended "to meet the growing demand for connectivity" by improving data connection. Roy said Simsbury wouldn't necessarily oppose such a plan, but there might be better locations for the poles. "We're not against cell phones, we're not against cell communications," Roy said. "We want to make sure that everybody's property is essentially protected and that we don't have unsightly infrastructure."

Mobilitie, which builds cell towers and partners with wireless service carriers, categorizes the structures as utility poles, which under Connecticut law can be placed in the public right-of-way as needed and wouldn't fall under the jurisdiction of local or state authority, similar to public utilities such as Eversource and United Illuminating.

However, any new tower proposed to be constructed in the state, regardless of its location, falls under the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Siting Council, Executive Director Melanie Bachman said. "Telecommunications companies do not enjoy eminent domain power in the state," she said.

In its letter to Simsbury, Mobilitie describes itself as "the nation's largest privately-held public utility ... [that] constructs facilities in the public rights-of-way and/or utility easement corridors." Multiple press releases on its website classify the company as a "wireless infrastructure provider." In 2011, Mobilitie was granted a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from PURA to provide telecommunications services, but that does not constitute any sort of pre-approval to build new structures, Bachman said. "[Mobilitie] may have been under the erroneous impression that that certificate itself is a free, do as you will and want card, which certainly it's not," Bachman said. "But ... if you're not familiar with a state's regulatory environment, certainly there's a lot of room for misunderstanding."

Randy Collins, an advocacy manager for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said at least 20 municipalities received such letters this summer. The organization is gathering more information to determine how many more have been contacted. "CCM's position is [that] we are not opposed to the siting of new towers and infrastructure in our communities," he said.

"There are benefits, but there has to be a clear process. Before you can install a 120-foot tower in the right-of-way in a public area, there needs to be the opportunity for municipal officials and the public to weigh in on the siting of these." "There is a wide interest in municipalities of increasing high-speed broadband access, but there is that process that balances everybody's needs," he added.

Mobilitie requests in other states back to top

Mobilitie appears to have issued similar requests in other parts of the country since the beginning of August, judging from articles in such newspapers as The Telegraph in Macon, Ga.; The Peru Tribune in Indiana; and the Green Bay Press-Gazette in Winsconsin.

Those projects range from placing small antennas atop pre-existing streetlights to erecting the same 120-foot poles proposed across Connecticut. Mobilitie has not responded to The Courant's repeated requests to discuss its Connecticut-specific plans, but in an emailed statement, company CEO Gary Jabara said: "Small cells are the future for communities that seek non-obtrusive and concealed ways to increase coverage and capacity for citizens. ... Our goal is to help bring greater wireless connectivity to cities in order to deliver a better mobile experience to citizens, help communities bridge the digital divide and enable technology-driven economic growth opportunities."

A June article by the Wall Street Journal reports that Sprint is working with Mobilitie to improve its network by installing new poles or attaching antennas to existing poles. In the article, Jabara said the company would be willing to revise its proposals to avoid conflict, saying, "It's more important to be a good citizen. ... You have to do the right thing."

Mobilitie's proposal in Cheshire would involve installing a box on an existing telephone pole to increase service, Milone, the town manager, said, but the company mentioned the possibility of adding new poles in the public right-of-way. "I don't think they really understood the Connecticut landscape too well," Milone said. "The whole approach was very abrupt and it really hurt their cause. They may have a wonderful cause … but to come in and basically tell you they have the right to do something we don't understand or know about is a little overbearing and heavy handed. I don't think they expected the reaction they got. I don't think they ever thought about fact that we would mobilize."

Manchester also got a letter, near the beginning of August, announcing plans for a 120-foot pole in that town, said General Manager Scott Shanley. He said they were shocked by the proposal and, like Simsbury and Cheshire, plan to work closely with CCM as the process moves forward.

"We have an interest in ensuring that our residents have the technology that they want and need at the speeds that they want and need," Shanley said. "Whether or not this is the way to do it, I don't know, but we need to understand who has authority over what before we react."

The Glastonbury town council last week took up the issue at its Tuesday meeting after receiving a similar request for a 120-foot pole. The council unanimously agreed to send letters to state legislators requesting guidance. Bachman, of the Connecticut Siting Council, said Mobilitie met with the council and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority last spring, during which the approval process was explained. Months later, she said, the concerned calls from cities and towns started flooding in.

Bachman said the letters appeared to be identical except for details regarding the precise, community-specific locations for the towers. However, she said, they failed to explain how Mobilitie would approach the process and were missing details about the company's partnership with service providers. "Mobilitie is under the regulatory authority of both PURA and the Siting Council and they're not just going to start constructing these towers next week, because they need to get regulatory approval to do so," Bachman said. "They have to go through the process like everyone else."

A joint technical meeting between Mobilitie, the council, PURA and the Office of Consumer Counsel is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 1 p.m. Bachman said many concerns should be addressed at that time. "This meeting is important and I hope that it accomplishes what it needs to accomplish in bringing Mobilitie to the table and providing an understanding as to how they are supposed to apply for these type of installations properly."