Travails of Paradise Valley cell phone coverage prevails as solutions prove tricky

Paradise Valley Town Hall is at 6401 E. Lincoln Dr. (file photo)

The long road to improve quality of cell phone coverage within the Town of Paradise Valley appears to be in pursuit of remediation, once again.

In this latest iteration, the municipality is collaborating with industry experts in an effort to resolve the issue of dropped calls and poor signals. For years officials within Paradise Valley have sought a solution to improve the cell phone coverage.

In 2011 the town attempted to rectify the issues through new technology known as a distributed antenna system, which consists of a fiber-optic backbone that includes a series of six-foot antenna nodes installed throughout a community improving coverage, voice quality and internet access of cell phones, according to Independent archives.

As a solution, 42 antenna nodes had been installed throughout Paradise Valley embedded within faux cacti.

Because of the community’s geography and land-use patterns, traditional macro cell sites are limited within town limits. Sloping hillsides and mountains create challenges to the quality of cell phone coverage and how that service can be improved, town officials say.

However, over the years the issue of poor cell coverage didn’t improve and finding a solution was deemed a quality of life initiative in January 2016. Between 2016-18, previous Town Manager Kevin Burke had meetings with numerous industry leaders including the four major cell carriers, Ghost Networks, Coal Creek, American Tower and Engineering Wireless Services.

A cell phone task force was comprised at the beginning of 2018, and on July 30 town officials released a request for information, seeking information from residents and experts alike in an effort to rectify these issues once and for all. Responses were received from T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Crown Castle.

The task force is comprised of four Paradise Valley residents: Drew Smith, Doug Jorden, Eric Leibsohn and Dayna Kully, and spearheaded by mayor-elect Jerry Bien-Willner.

“I’ll just tell you, we’re trying to do this in the most succinct way possible,” Mr. Bien-Willner said during a Dec. 6 Town Council study session meeting.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work going into this; coming up with an approach that would get the right response. We kind of have gone through it, the technical challenges before, we chewed on this problem. We settled on this multi-prong approach, which is if we’re going to go fishing, let’s put as much bait as we can out there and then get attention.”

The town also conducted a radio frequency study, finding five key problem areas within the town. Town officials say as a general overview of the Paradise Valley cellular coverage and performance, all signals are weak and not providing adequate coverage indoors and inside vehicles.

The four main cell carriers evaluated are Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.

During a drive test on Paradise Valley streets, it was observed that the areas with the weakest radio frequency coverage are concentrated along areas including:

  • Tatum Boulevard and south of Doubletree Ranch Road: weak coverage seen for Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile;
  • Lincoln Drive west of Tatum Boulevard to 32nd Street: weak coverage seen for all four carriers;
  • Lincoln Drive south of Mummy Mountain: weak coverage seen for all four carriers;
  • Area around Camelback Golf Course south and north of canal: weak coverage seen for AT&T, T-Mobile and Spring;
  • East and west of Tatum Road and Road Runner Road for all four carriers.

Town officials noted the areas are of “general description” since not all frequencies behave the same way and are dependent of the carrier’s application, orientation and modulation.

A map provided by Paradise Valley officials shows the five problem areas of cell coverage.

Cell Phone Task Force progress

The Town Council received an update to the cell phone task force efforts on Dec. 6, with both Mr. Bien-Willner and Deputy Town Manager Dawn Marie Buckland divulging information about progress that’s ensued over the previous 12 months.

An additional aspect making cell coverage tricky within the town is the municipality’s aesthetic guidelines and reluctance to putting up cell towers.

Town officials looked at efforts other municipalities have done, such as the city of Sedona, who drafted a wireless master plan and later found that their residents didn’t want wireless infrastructure in their backyards, Mr. Bien-Willner explained.

“We wanted to avoid that kind of a situation,” he said. “So we took a different approach, which was to reach out to (the) industry, get them involved, really be open to the industry, sharing with them our aesthetic concerns and our other limitations, if you want to call them that, but also requesting that feedback and looking for solutions.”

The mayor-elect says he personally called each and every person on their list and invited them to participate.

While Verizon didn’t respond to the RFI over the summer, Mr. Bien-Willner says the wireless company did express an interest to participate, but it came after the deadline.

The cell phone task force and town staff hosted “listening sessions” in small groups with the carriers.

“First of all, to the group, they were all extremely encouraged by this and it actually had gotten them to focus on what they want to do in Paradise Valley,” Mr. Bien-Willner explained. “They said this was the first time they had a municipality reach out to them in this fashion to get their input and start a conversation about how to get infrastructure in.”

While the typical model for wireless cell carriers is to put up infrastructure — cell towers — in a commercial location or zoned property, Mr. Bien-Willner says Paradise Valley got proactive about this approach.

Jerry Bien-Willner (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Ms. Buckland reached out to all the special use permit properties within the town and asked if they would be interested in constructing cell infrastructure on their property, that would at a minimum improve cell service.

Besides the schools, Mr. Bien-Willner said a lot of the properties were interested.

“When we shared that, started talking about that with the industry they were extremely excited, and they want to be connected,” he said. “They all acknowledged that just every other municipality, it’s most likely going to be incremental improvement. One of the carriers is ready right now to start improving their infrastructure, like right away, and the others are all excited to get going on that.”

The town is now in position to connect the cell carriers with the SUP properties in a facilitated manner, he said.

Ms. Buckland reiterated Mr. Bien-Willner’s comments, stating the positivity the cell carriers brought forward.

“What I wanted to reiterate, what was really exciting was the excitement they came to the table with,” she said. “They really were happy we were having that conversation, excited to continue that dialogue. It’s been a really great process. One thing that did come out of that was Crown and AT&T had said, ‘hey we’re looking to install new on-site radios, here are some potential barriers there.’”

The two companies are prepared to replace all of their infrastructure in the faux cacti, town officials said, but they would like to involve some on-site equipment near those cacti to get a better signal. Mr. Bien-Willner said that’s probably a larger conversation for another meeting.

Ms. Buckland presented a before and after photo to the Town Council of a local church that had infrastructure embedded into the top of the building — a difference was hardly noticeable. Town councilmembers called the two photos a “Where’s Waldo” situation.

“You can see that there’s additional height on the steeple itself and there’s additional mass underneath it. Is that something that’s desecrate enough that we would be interested in seeing providers come through with proposals like this?” Ms. Buckland asked the council.

Dawn Marie Buckland, deputy town manager. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Wireless brainstorming

Ms. Buckland and Mr. Bien-Willner discussed the current standards the town has and brought up the idea of creating some new policies that might better address the wireless woes.

The town’s small cell wireless ordinance was based on an unknown applicant, Mr. Bien-Willner said, and specifies how big infrastructure can be; however, when looking at what wireless carriers are using in other municipalities, Mr. Bien-Willner raised the question of whether or not a couple of inches more in size matters in the grand scheme of things?

The wireless carriers also said that timing is an important factor in their projects, as something that can get done quickly is easier for the companies because of their own budget cycles.

“If the project, what we heard from them repeatedly, is if it’s, ‘gee I don’t know how long this will take, or it’s 12 months to 18 months, versus three-six months, the shorter time frame projects get prioritized and those will get done,” Mr. Bien-Willner explained.

Additionally, it appears there is opportunity to review what the municipality’s standards are when it comes to allowing infrastructure on the SUP and conditional use permit properties.

“There was a question raised about looking at what our SUP and conditional use permit standards are, and are there areas where we could have carve outs for infrastructure?” he asked.

“For example, putting something behind a parapet. Under our code, that may qualify as a more significant amendment process than any of us at this table or in the community think might be warranted. Should we do a comprehensive review of that with the industry to figure out where there are efficiencies that can be gained?”

Lastly, Mr. Bien-Willner brought up an “SUP checklist” and the idea of in-building. An in-building cellular enhancement system is a solution, which is used to extend and distribute the cellular signal within a building. Mr. Bien-Willner believes this would make a difference on the town’s resort properties.

“One thing they told us consistently — we hear it from our resort GMs — is that the in-building coverage at those resorts and in people’s homes is not often good, but at the SUP properties and resorts in particular, should there be a requirement as part of the SUP submittal to have a plan for in-building coverage as a safety issue, connectivity issue?” he asked.

“If people come to PV and they don’t get cell coverage are they going to come back? In fact one of the carriers told us that Paradise Valley gets attention when their executives travel here and they can’t use their phones.”

News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be reached by e-mail at mrosequist@newszap.com or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Mrosequist_

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