ANCRAM–No cell phone ring tones were heard and no one talked on a cell phone, but there was much talk about cell phone service when around 75 people gathered at Town Hall with Congressman Scott Murphy (D-20th), February 8 at noon.
Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin, Copake Supervisor Reggie Crowley, along with other officials from Ancram, Copake, Taghkanic and Gallatin, Ed Bergstraesser from public affairs at AT&T and Jim Jeffries of Northeast Communications, a company that handles cell tower sites, all on hand.
Also attending was Ancram resident Bob Roth, whose dogged pursuit of local cell phone service for the last two or three years had much to do with why the matter is being addressed.
Congressman Murphy said one of his goals is to bring the technology available in his district into the 21st century. “A big piece of that is cell phone service, another piece is broadband access,” he said.
Mr. Murphy repeated a story he frequently relates in his travels about two women who make goat cheese in another part of his district. The women were initially delighted to get their products included in the Williams-Sonoma catalog, he said. But when sales went through the roof and their only way of processing the orders was via slow dial-up Internet service, the women asked that their products be dropped from the catalog.
He also said his travels through Columbia County down the Taconic State Parkway tend to get him in trouble at home because the lack of cell service disconnects him in the middle of conversations with his wife.
Though Mr. Bergstraesser offered assurances that AT&T is committed to building two cell towers in southeastern Columbia County “over the next year or two,” he declined to reveal the exact locations and said he was “under strict orders” not to reveal when the new service would start.
Residents complained about the lack of both cell service and quick, reliable Internet access. And Steve Edelstein of Gallatinville said AT&T charges him monthly for services the company knows are not available where he lives.
Arnie Anderson of Ancramdale said he is also an AT&T customer who cannot make cell phone calls from his house. He also said the DSL Internet service from Fairpoint Communications is woefully slow.
Gallatin resident Victor Miller said he is “a recent import” from the “First World nation” of Wisconsin and was astonished to find he now lives in a place with Third World services. He said if he stands on the deck outside his house with one foot pointing south he may be able to make cell phone call, but he is completely out of luck when it comes to trying to establish a business for which he must use the Internet.
Copake Councilman Bob Sacks pointed out that there are “haves and have-nots” when it comes to Internet and cell phone services in rural areas.
Mr. Bergstraesser said once AT&T has made commitments to the properties on which it will put cell towers, the company may be “better able to tell” what level of services it will offer, and he suggested that broadband Internet access may be included.
Mr. Jeffries said terrain plays a big role in the location of cell towers and that for “optimum” coverage they should be six miles apart. He said the cell service industry has been consolidating over the past three years and there has not been a lot of money for new tower construction in unserved areas.
Congressman Murphy mentioned the Rural Broadband Initiative Act of 2010, a bill he and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently introduced, calling it “the first step to pushing for universal coverage.”
The bill would amend the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 and establish a new Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives to consolidate efforts, including funding, to create broadband access.
Both Terry Boyles from the Ancram Fire Company and Tom Toigo from the Milan Fire Company emphasized the need for cell phone service for the sake of public safety. Mr. Boyles noted that firefighters have “no radio communications” locally and need cell phones to communicate in emergency situations.
Mr. Toigo said cell phones are the primary way people now report accidents. Public safety is at issue when accidents occur in certain locations on the parkway and there are no houses around, no cell service available and “time is critical.”
Mr. Boyles wanted to know what will happen when a piece of property suitable for a cell tower is found, but people who live near it don’t want a cell tower built there.
Mr. Bassin noted that if the property is privately owned, a cell tower application will have to make its way through the zoning process. If a municipality owns the property, the town could exempt itself from its own zoning. But the supervisor said that submitting to the zoning process and trying to persuade opponents along the way that cell towers are necessary for public safety is probably a better idea.
The congressman agreed that trying “to get consensus” was preferable.
Though the focus of the meeting was cell phone service and Internet access, the congressman was not spared several healthcare reform questions at the end of the hour-long meeting.
This was the congressman’s second visit to this southeasternmost town in Columbia County since he barnstormed around the southern tier of his district January 6.
In recognition of the occasion, Supervisor Bassin gave the congressman an Ancram Community Day baseball cap, which led the congressman to wonder out loud what he might expect on his third visit to town.
Did someone say cell phone service?