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AT&T’s tower proposal debated in Hingham

Zoning board asked to reject cell facility

As AT&T representatives strive for town approval to construct a 120-foot cell tower near Anchor Plaza on Lincoln Street in Hingham, some locals worry the towering structure will prove unsafe, ruin the neighborhood’s aesthetics, and diminish property values.

Global Tower Assets LLC and New Cingular Wireless PCS LLC — more generally known as AT&T — submitted a petition to local officials in the fall to approve the tower, which exceeds the town’s 100-foot height limit and setback ratios, and would sit on residentially zoned property.

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The petition also comes as the companies’ attorney says AT&T has about a dozen applications before various zoning boards in the south suburbs to erect towers or install antennas to improve service. “AT&T is constantly looking to improve the network,” said Earl Duval, the lawyer.

In 2012, AT&T announced it would invest $14 billion over three years to expand its network, including a promise that 300 million Americans would be covered by the latest 4G LTE, a new technology that AT&T says boasts data speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G waves, by the end of this year.

However, the tower proposed in Hingham would only boost voice calls and 3G service, partly a result of the petition languishing for months before the zoning board, said Michael Lawton, a radio frequency engineering consultant to AT&T, at a recent hearing before the Hingham zoning board. There would also be opportunities for other competitors to attach antennas to the tower, Lawton said.

But Lawton could not tell reporters or Hingham officials exactly how bad service is in the proposed area, noting during the hearing that “AT&T does not want to disclose customer dropped calls.”

Similarly, neither the state nor the Federal Communications Commission possesses any data that show where additional cell towers are needed. According to an FCC representative, the federal agency does not require providers to submit that information, but noted that coverage maps can be found through individual providers.

However, cell companies are hesitant to provide data on which areas could use better service, citing customer privacy and competition from other companies.

“A lot of that is proprietary because of competition and customers,” Duval said.

In Hingham, there are already two AT&T antennas near the new proposed tower — one located in the steeple of Hingham’s First Baptist Church and another in a smoke stack near 349 Lincoln St., Lawton said. However, the signals grow weaker near the northern section of Hingham, as well as other areas near Lincoln Street, according to data Lawton presented to the zoning board.

Though he could not say specifically how many dropped calls there were or how many homes in the area suffer from poor service, Lawton said it was enough to demonstrate a need for AT&T to boost signal in the area to meet company standards of between -74 to -82 decibel-milliwatts, the corporation’s range for acceptable 3G network power.

“We’re responding to dropped calls, and AT&T wants to improve data service,” Lawton said after the meeting.

Global Tower Assets, a tower operating company, is the main applicant on the proposal, but “AT&T supports the application because we need this site,” Lawton said after the meeting, adding that “other companies could place antennas of their own on the site if they want to.”

The companies are applying to Hingham under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allows wireless providers to bypass some local bylaws if they can demonstrate a service gap in the area.

However, a citizens group of residents opposed to the cell tower proposal — dubbed Hingham Against Cell Towers in Our Neighborhoods, or Hingham ACTION — conducted its own study of AT&T coverage in the area, and told the zoning board that service proved satisfactory.

The group used RootMetrics, an independent mobile network performance testing application, to compile its findings, noting that AT&T touted RootMetrics’s reports in marketing material last summer.

K. Bradford Carr, a Tupelo Drive resident who is part of the neighborhood group, told the board that a team from the group took an AT&T cellphone and drove up and down nearly every street the company said would benefit from the new cell tower.

“We were testing the signal strength and made calls, and we never had problems,” Carr said, noting also that he never had dropped calls inside his home.

The signal strength test by Hingham ACTION also comes after the group gathered about 200 signatures petitioning the zoning board to deny the tower, which it deems too intrusive. The group worries that the looming structure would be a cumbersome eyesore, create noise pollution, decrease home values, and even prove dangerous if it were to collapse, Carr said.

Under Hingham bylaws, such a tower must have a setback equal to its height. Though the proposed Anchor Plaza tower is 120 feet high, the applicants hope to gain zoning board approval for a setback of about 83 feet, said Emily Wentworth, the zoning board’s senior planner.

Zoning board member Joseph Freeman said during the hearing that he felt uncomfortable with the setback because a residential property lies inside the radius that could be hit should the tower fall. However, he said that the issue proved tricky, since moving the tower would infringe upon wetland setbacks, and noted that the actual house on the property was outside the fall zone.

“The house is outside the fall zone but the property itself is inside,” he said. “I’m just having trouble with this because it involves residential property.”

The public hearing for the tower was tentatively continued to July 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Hingham Town Hall. For more information, visit www.hingham-ma.com or www.hinghamaction.com.

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.
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