Wireless Woes Hit Great Falls

Wireless Woes Hit Great Falls

GFCA Planning Committee hears DAS proposal from Nextel.

There seems to be some competition for cellular phone service providers in Great Falls.

During its monthly planning and zoning committee meeting, the Great Falls Citizens Association heard a presentation on Distributive Antenna System (DAS) from three representatives from Nextel, along with an engineer from Holland & Knight, a firm from Washington, D.C.

"We've already submitted for a 2232 review," said Edward L. Donohue, a representative from Holland & Knight."

The DAS network would consist of 29 receiver nodes placed on existing utility poles along Georgetown Pike, including on Walker Road, Old Dominion Drive, Beech Mill Road, River Bend Drive, Seneca Road, Utterback Store Road and Springvale Road. The nodes are designed to help provide cellular phone service, he said.

A 2232 review means that the Fairfax County Planning Commission has to investigate the project before it can be approved and work begins.

"The boxes (nodes) would be located near the bottom of the pole but not at a height where cars could run into them," said Jeff Ott, a representative from Nextel. "There would also be an expandable antenna on the top of the utility pole, but there wouldn't be a need to extend it."

THE CENTRAL HUB of the DAS would be in an office building on the corner of Walker Road and Georgetown Pike, Ott said. "There would be nine nodes on Georgetown Pike, four on Old Dominion, six on Beech Mill Road, three on River Bend, three on Seneca, two on Utterback Store and two on Springvale Road," he said.

The installation of the nodes would provide an opportunity to bring the poles up to meet code regulations, Ott said. "We want to make sure [utility companies] can lower their equipment to work on the poles if they need to. We'd prefer to keep the poles at their current height and not install taller ones," he said. The poles are owned by Dominion Virginia Power.

When asked if the foliage from the numerous trees that line Georgetown Pike would have an adverse effect on the ability of the nodes to increase cellular signal, the men said it wasn't clear how much impact it would have.

"All antennas are somewhat sensitive to foliage," said John Stele, also from Nextel. "We may find that some areas have better reception in winter, when the leaves are gone, than in the summer because of the green leaf attenuation."

The location of each node "is planned with the location of the following node in mind" in order to provide the best coverage possible, said Noel Garcia of Nextel.

"We're not sure what Dominion has in mind, but we won't be cutting any trees for our needs," Stele said.

THERE ARE CURRENTLY "pockets of good coverage" for Nextel customers in Great Falls, said John Ulfelder, a member of the planning committee. "The premise of our design is to provide better road coverage along Georgetown Pike," Garcia said.

A map showing the current coverage and the improved coverage with the installation of the nodes showed very subtle differences; the planning committee members asked several times to be shown the differences between the two maps.

"We're interested in covering the road ways better," Stele said. Any enhanced reception in residential areas was uncertain at Thursday night's meeting.

"This project is not designed to help people using their cell phone in their homes," Ulfelder said. "It's designed to help the mobile user. What happened to the goal of increasing coverage everywhere? You're spending a lot of money on this system," he said.

"Our goal is to have the driver coverage increased," Stele said. "This is our compromise. We realize that your community doesn't want 150-foot-tall poles installed. This is an issue of coverage and capacity."

Ulfelder said that he would contact Nancy Hopkins, the Dranesville District representative to the county's Planning Commission and let her know the group had heard Nextel's presentation. "We have a concern about providing a larger area of coverage, to get into the neighborhoods you're not reaching, but I understand that your options are limited," he said.

A SIMILAR PROPOSAL from Verizon Wireless has been presented to the Planning Commission, and a Sept. 22 hearing date has been set, Ulfelder said. The Verizon plan includes the installation of a monopole near the intersection of Walker Road and Colvin Mill Road, a proposal that has been criticized for its location in a historic district.

"We understand the GFCA's position but we have citizens who don't have any cellular coverage," said Rosemary Ryan, a representative from Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois' office who handles land use issues.

"We want the coverage too, but it hasn't been clearly defined where the coverage will actually be enhanced," said David Olin, president of the Great Falls Citizens Association. "I never left any meeting with Verizon with an idea of the actual percentage benefit of the location they're choosing over other alternative sites."