Task force: Ball now in town's court to fix cellphone service on Hilton Head

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Task force: Ball now in town's court to fix cellphone service on Hilton Head

Published Tuesday, December 6, 2011   |  596 Words  |  

Jim Collett, chairman of the Greater Island Council's telecommunications task force, wants people to know where the ball is -- both literally and figuratively.

Collett on Tuesday handed Mayor Drew Laughlin a basketball that reads "fixing cellphone service on Hilton Head Island" after arguing for a "shortened, predictable" town approval process for new cell towers.

Wireless carriers are deferring spending to improve service on the island because of the lengthy approval process to build new towers and restrictions on where and how they can be constructed, Collett told Town Council.

An explosion of wireless data services is available today and growing exponentially. However, the amount of available spectrum and the need for more towers on the island to close coverage gaps have not changed, Collett said.

Further delays could mean disaster, he said.

"Rapidly increasing usage will cause cellphone service to continue to deteriorate, despite the desire to improve it by the carriers," Collett said. "We found the enemy, and it is us. We have gotten in the way. If we don't do something soon ... it will be like standing in front of a tidal wave."

Collett worked in real estate and network-planning for telecom firm Bell Atlantic for 25 years before it became Verizon.

Council ultimately voted unanimously to adopt a list of task force recommendations, including expediting the approval process to within 90 days. The group of industry experts also recommends adoption of a standard rental rate to avoid lost time in getting new towers placed on town property up and running.

AT&T has deferred putting its equipment on a new cell tower on town land next to Fire Station No. 7 off Marshland Road until July 2012, citing town delays, including determining rent, Collett said.

Other recommendations include:

  • Treating cellphone service as essential infrastructure, similar to roads, water, sewer and electrical service.
  • Installing more town-sponsored WiFi hot spots and creating a town-wide WiFi alliance among businesses.
  • Educating the island, especially gated communities, on the economic importance for improving cellphone and telecommunications services.
  • Ward 5 Councilman George Williams, Jr. questioned Collett's tone. He admits the town has been somewhat "neglectful" in addressing the issue, but argued it needed to protect its financial interest in taking time to finalize a rental agreement for the tower off Marshland Road.

    The island's tree canopy, flat terrain and low elevation make receiving cellphone signals difficult. Poor service became a prominent issue in last year's mayoral election, and Town Council set improving telecommunications service on the island as a top priority for 2011.

    "We need to get the ball into the carriers' court ... and the clock is ticking. Cellphone service isn't getting any better," Collett said.

    Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

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