For all of the city’s efforts since 2017 to improve cell coverage in Palm Coast, reliability is still a serious problem, and a deficit of needed towers still looms.
Only 14 to 15 percent of the city’s land mass is getting fully reliable coverage. Less than 35 percent of the city is getting fair to mediocre coverage. More than half of city residents have unreliable coverage. You might still be able to make a call and have a fitful conversation, but other data-heavy apps on the phone would not function effectively.
That’s the summary analysis from Diamond Communications, the company the city hired in 2017 to study coverage and implement plans to improve it, including the building of new towers. The analysis was drawn in large part from crowdsource data that aggregates the results from many sources, including users of At&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. The analysis was presented to the council on Tuesday by Diamond’s Tony Sabatino, Daniel Turnpaugh, Domonic Bouloy and Rob Leonard.
“Many people at home probably use some kind of a cable connector and therefore have the advantage of WiFi within their dwelling units,” Mayor David Alfin said. “But this is different. This is if you were outside in your front yard and you were far enough away from the WiFi so it wouldn’t work: 50 percent of our folks might not have reliable coverage in their backyard.”
The analysis did not indicate to what extent–if any–first responders such as law enforcement and firefighters experience blackouts when they go into certain areas, or buildings. The mayor wants that analysis in coming weeks.
The proportion of poorly served areas of the city includes undeveloped lands and lands where the city would not build anyway, so the proportion of residents getting full coverage is somewhat higher. Conversely, as the mayor noted, “we do support the best trail system and kayaking areas probably anywhere in the region, if not the state. I want to make sure that none of our folks that are using any of our amenities are left to unsafe without some available coverage to call for emergency assistance, should they need it.”
Overall, cell coverage in Palm Coast remains generally poorer than where it ought to be, especially compared to, say, Kissimmee, considered by Diamond a “best in class city.”
Reliable coverage is what it implies: your reception doesn’t fail, whether you’re outside, in a car, or in a building. It becomes unreliable when the cell is taken into a building.
They showed maps of the city color-coded to reflect good and bad coverage. The map looked like one of those NOAA maps showing global heat, but for Palm Coast, with the darker-orange, redder and blacker zones signifying poor coverage. Most of the city is still in those darker hues.
Diamond knows where additional cell towers need to be placed. But “I don’t believe there’s any on the horizon for right now,” City Attorney Neysa Borkert said. So any improvements from new towers may be a way off.
The city had an arrangement with Diamond that grant the company regulatory leeway to build towers, at its expense, and profit from most of the revenue generated from those towers. Palm Coast gets revenue from permitting fees and some of the revenue from carriers. As land values increase, the company is raising its rental rates with carriers, which in turn would generate more money in its revenue-sharing arrangement with Palm Coast.
“What we’re doing across the country is we’re working with developers today to include wireless and telecommunications into the community in the planning group,” a Diamond official told the council. “It’s one thing I recommend to you as you start building up the western portion [of Palm Coast]. Figure out how you incorporate it in the community from day one, so when you’re doing sewers, water, streets, power, also start considering telecommunications.”
Council member Nick Klufas was more curious about what could be done in the nearer future. Diamond officials’ answer was more general. “Over the next couple of years we have some opportunities and we know where sites need to be,” one of the Diamond officials said.
As for satellite communications and a future with tens of thousands of satellites circling the planet: that’s much further ahead, Diamond officials say. For now satellite communications tend to be delayed, capacity is still an issue, so satellites cannot effectively compete with ground-based towers.
But those towers need actual land where a tower wouldn’t unecessarily clash with the surrounding community, “vertical real estate” where they can rise, they need to be connected to fiberoptics and power. Line of sight is useful but not essential. The signal can bounce and go through walls within a radius of about 2.1 miles, serving some 3,000 people. That’s the ratio Diamonds says is necessary to cover an urban population.
Doing the math, that means Palm Coast’s population of 100,000 needs 33 sites. It has nowhere near that number. Diamond built five since 2017, with two more in the pipeline.
The site must also comply with health guidelines to limit energy levels. There have been concerns about the radiofrequency waves cell towers emit. Diamond officials say they comply with guidelines from the Federal Communications Commission, with information from the American Cancer Society.
But the society position on RF waves isn’t conclusive: “At this time,” the society states, “there’s no strong evidence that exposure to RF waves from cell phone towers causes any noticeable health effects. However, this does not mean that the RF waves from cell phone towers have been proven to be absolutely safe. Most expert organizations agree that more research is needed to help clarify this, especially for any possible long-term effects.”