ADIRONDACKS — Lack of cell coverage remains an issue in many parts of the Adirondack Park, but cellphone service in the remote settlements around the north end of Great Sacandaga Lake has greatly improved in recent months.
Under an agreement that took effect this summer and was announced on Friday, Saratoga County is leasing antenna space on its emergency radio communications tower network to commercial carrier Verizon Wireless, the private company that has invested the most in trying to develop Adirondack coverage. Local officials and residents already see a difference.
“Bringing much needed wireless service to the community is long overdue,” said Arthur Wright, Hadley town supervisor. “Collectively, we have been working on this issue for the past several years and I am pleased to say it is finally coming to fruition.”
The lack of or unreliability of cellphone service for commercial or even emergency purposes has been an issue for the roughly 130,000 year-round residents of the Adirondacks since the technology first became routine in more-populated areas two decades ago — and it is an issue that has received new attention because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we’ve learned from COVID is that it’s important for things like telemedicine, and for distance learning,” said Horicon Town Supervisor Matt Simpson, who has been working on the issue as president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and was just elected to a state Assembly seat representing the southeastern Adirondacks.
“There’s definitely a lot of vast areas that do not have a lot of cell coverage, a lot of remote areas, dead zones all up and down Route 30 in Hamilton County,” Simpson said. “It is a public safety issue.”
Co-locations like the ones around Great Sacandaga Lake may be an answer in some spots, but there are also places where tall towers are needed, he said. “Just to be clear, we’re not talking about towers on peaks like Whiteface Mountain, we’re talking about around hamlets and populated areas. I think that sometimes gets lost in people being concerned about the landscape.”
The Adirondack Park Agency, the state agency that oversees land use in the 6-million-acre park, says the situation has improved, with over 400 tower applications approved and service now available along the Northway and most major state highways.
The Adirondack Council, one of the park’s major environmental groups, says cell service has improved in many areas, but the APA needs to insist on the standard that towers be “substantially invisible” in the surrounding landscape.
“Most of the gaps now are in places where people don’t live,” said Council spokesman John Sheehan. “The great success has been in filling gaps close to communities. The next challenge, we think, is getting major highways filled in to make travel safety, and that can be done without tall towers.”
But around Great Sacandaga Lake, the solution has been to co-locate commercial equipment on tall emergency towers the county erected a decade ago with APA approval to fill in “dead zones” for police, fire and emergency medical service radio communications.
Verizon equipment has been installed on the county communications towers in Providence, Edinburg and Day, and is about to be installed on a communications tower in Lake Luzerne. The moves are greatly improving cellphone and internet service in the narrow valleys and lakeside hamlets of those three towns and the town of Hadley.
While the year-round population of the four lake towns is less than 10,000, the new coverage will also benefit the area’s numerous seasonal residents, most of whom are used to better cellphone coverage than they receive there.
“The public and our emergency services rely on cellular service for day-to-day communications and internet access,” said Carl Zeilman, Saratoga County commissioner of emergency services. Zeilman said the new service will make emergency responses easier, since the county will be able to better track emergency calls from cellphones.
“Bringing cellular services to the northern part of the county is a tremendous benefit to public safety and first responders,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo. “The expanded cellular coverage area will maximize response by first responders and provide residents and visitors the ability to dial 911 from a wireless device in areas where it was once non-existent.”
Under the agreement between the county and Verizon Wireless, the company will pay for the use of the towers, generating $105,600 in annual revenue for the county. The initial lease term at each site is five years, and with automatic renewal provisions that could run for up to 40 years.
“One of our primary focuses has been working to leverage our existing communications infrastructure to bring much needed cellular service to the Sacandaga Lake area,” Zeilman said. “I am proud to say, we turned this vision into a reality.”
The arrangement is expected to work around Great Sacandaga Lake, since the towers are already there — but it may not be easy to replicate elsewhere in the park.
Simpson said improving cellphone coverage will be a priority for him once he joins the state Legislature in January. He was elected this week to the Assembly seat formerly held by Dan Stec — another strong advocate for better coverage — who was elected to the region’s state Senate seat.
“We’ve been working on this at the Adirondack Associaton of Towns and Villages, and I expect to continue to make it a priority in Albany,” he said on Friday.
Sheehan said improved service along remote sections of state highways — preferably, in the Adirondack Council’s view, with short antennas attached to existing structures — will require state financial assistance.
“We think it would be relatively inexpensive, but we think it would require state assistance given that the business model of the phone companies is to not build infrastructure in areas where they don’t believe they will have customers,” he said.