Anyone who's driven along Georgetown Pike and tried to make a cell phone call knows the frustration of spotty, in-and-out antenna strength along the curvy, tree-lined road.
In an attempt to correct the problem, Nextel has issued a plan to install 29 distributed antenna system (DAS) nodes along utility poles on Georgetown Pike, housed in small boxes connected via fiber optic cables to improve cellular signal for their customers.
"The McLean Citizens Association hasn't formed an opinion yet" on the project, said James Roberts, chairman of the MCA's Planning and Zoning Committee. Representatives from Nextel gave a presentation on the DAS system during their monthly meeting on July 26. A similar presentation was given to the Great Falls Citizen Association's Planning and Zoning Committee a few months ago.
"We did ask that they look at a few other options instead of putting the boxes on the utility poles," Roberts said, including possibly using the Verizon monopole near the entrance of Great Falls Park, which had been approved and installed under the condition that the pole, which looks like a large tree, would be capable of use by several cellular phone service providers.
"We haven't heard back from them yet, but we should have some answers by the end of the month if they stay on track to have a hearing with the [Fairfax County] Planning Commission next month," Roberts said.
He admits the lack of service along Georgetown Pike one that needs to be tackled.
"We're always in favor of improved wireless service so we know something needs to be done," Roberts said. "Hopefully this is something that can be resolved quickly."
During the presentation at the MCA, there were several concerns raised about the installation of DAS boxes on utility poles, said John Steele, a representative from Nextel.
"They wanted to know if we were providing for co-location, which we are," he said, meaning that other cellular phone providers could also use the boxes to improve their service signals. "We have the capacity to utilize existing structures, which they wanted, and our systems won't require anything to be built on top of the poles," he said.
However, it does not appear Nextel will be able to use the monopole at Great Falls Park due to the abundance of tree coverage.
"The height of the pole was reduced from 150 feet to 125 feet which would have allowed co-location above the tree line, but it's currently to the point where Verizon has their antenna at tree level," Steele said. Nextel representatives have driven along Georgetown Pike testing their signal strength and found that the location of their DAS on the monopole "wouldn't do a whole lot," he said.
THE INSTALLATION OF the nodes would provide for better coverage along the road but not necessarily at homes off the Pike, Steele said. "Will it provide for some better coverage? Yes. Will it be ubiquitous? No. We'd typically go for macro-coverage but in an area like this that's highly restricted, we try to get this type of system," he said. "It will help coverage dramatically along the road, which will help from a public safety standpoint. This is a compromise for us."
The next step for Nextel is a meeting with the Great Falls Citizens Association on September 13 to discuss the plan again before a hearing with the Fairfax County Planning Commission on September 29, at which point a decision will be made.
"This application is a good one, it's something the county has spent a lot of time looking at," said Ed Donohue, an attorney with Holland + Knight in Washington that is representing Nextel. "We've done a tremendous amount of work and we're looking forward to telling the Planning Commission about it."
Should the technology advance in a few years and something comes along that would provide for even better service, Steele said Nextel would be more than willing to "take advantage" of it.
"Frankly, if there were a solution for us, we'd look at something to replace the DAS," he said.
A service hub would be installed in an existing office building in Great Falls, at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Walker Road, Steele said.
Further inquiries can be made by calling David Jillson at the county's Planning Commission at 703-324-2865, Steele said.