Updating the Adirondack Park’s cell tower policy is essential

As senator, I rely on the input of my constituents to advance policies that will improve our communities. To that end, I recently sent out a survey relating to cell service in the Adirondack Park. That survey can also be taken here, at my Senate website. If we’re to ensure our region is up-to-date with the needs of our residents, action on the issue of cellular service is essential.

A lot has changed in 21 years.

Wars began and ended. Google went public in 2004. Facebook was founded that same year.

Scientists mapped the human genome. Rovers traversed Mars. Apple launched its first iPhone.

Amid all that change and technological upheaval, one thing has remained stagnant: the regulation of cellular technology in the Adirondack Park.

It was in 2002 when the Adirondack Park Agency adopted its telecommunications policy, mandating that towers achieve “substantial invisibility.”

Ever since, those two words have defined technological development throughout a region roughly the size of Vermont.

It’s a phrase that, too often, results in towers that lack the height to project a signal as far as they could. It’s a phrase that drives up costs for providers, who in turn pass those charges on to customers, if they choose to invest in the region at all. Ultimately, it’s a phrase that, if modernized, could make the Adirondacks a safer, more prosperous place for its inhabitants and visitors.

Add to that an APA pre-application process that, according the a report issued in 2021 by the Upstate Cellular Taskforce, averages more than six months, and it’s easy to see why dead zones are a way of life in the Adirondacks.

Just 62% of adults in the U.S. owned a cellphone in 2002, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, that number is greater than 97%.

As Americans go cellular, the number of homes with landlines has dropped. By 2017, 51% of U.S. households were without a landline, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health.

In Franklin County, 72% of 911 calls received in 2022 by the local dispatch center originated from a cellular device, local officials report. County officials throughout the park reported significant increases over the past decade in the share of calls seeking emergency service made on a cellular device.

State officials have long known the important role cellular service plays in public safety. In 2007, a 63-year-old Brooklyn man froze to death on Interstate 87 near North Hudson after his vehicle became snowbound. His wife spent hours attempting to dial 911, but failed to get a signal.

In response, the state, including the APA, focused on expanding cell service along I-87, closing many of the gaps and rendering the wired emergency phones, in place since 1986, obsolete. State Police announced earlier this year the removal of the remaining wired call boxes on I-87 after so few motorists used them.

Even so, the Cellular Taskforce found long stretches of state routes 8, 28 and 3 were without service. In January, the state Transportation Department wheeled in mobile cell towers ahead of the FISU World University Games in Lake Placid and North Creek so the international cadre of athletes and spectators would have service.

Clearly, the lack of service is no secret to anyone.

The facts are clear: Cellphone technology is a necessity, one that must not be hindered by regulatory policy that has failed to evolve to meet current demands.

Under state law, the APA is charged with the protection and preservation of the region’s “unique scenic” vistas and “open space.” Nowhere, however, does the law establishing the agency dictate anything specific about cell towers.

The agency’s policy is rooted in an interpretation of the general mandate handed down by lawmakers in 1972.

But interpretations, like the technology, have changed significantly since 2002. There’s greater awareness among all stakeholders about the plight of towns within the Blue Line. Housing affordability, low wages, and a lack of private sector year-round jobs are a regular focus now.

Cellular technology is at the heart of all future development within the Adirondacks. Of greater concern, the lack of cellular coverage along the highways and roads throughout the park is a legitimate threat to the health and safety of the park’s residents and visitors alike.

Like flip phones from 2002, APA’s tower policy is an anachronism in dire need of an update.

(State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, represents the 45th Senate District in New York state, which includes Essex County.)

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