Where the wireless isn’t: Western Loudoun’s coverage gaps detailed, and what to do about them

Loudoun County has declared itself a data center hub for the Eastern Seaboard. But that doesn’t mean its residents and businesses have access to quality data.

Quite the opposite. Especially in western Loudoun, where finding a single bar on a cell phone or getting any wireless data connectivity whatsoever can be exasperating.

Only a quarter of western Loudoun is adequately covered by even one cell carrier, according to a report from Mechanicsville, Virginia-based The Atlantic Group on cell and broadband coverage gaps. The county’s major commuter corridors, including Route 7, have spotty coverage. It is both a public safety and economic development issue.

Since 2007, the county has approved permits for only seven new towers and two new structures (one water tank and one rooftop), while the county’s population has simultaneously boomed from 289,397 to roughly 350,000.

Per the Atlantic Group, which is scheduled to present its report to the Loudoun board Wednesday afternoon, the county needs 14-28 new cell towers to fill the cell gaps, at a cost of up to $10 million for the towers alone, not including the fiber and wireless infrastructure, RF equipment and power.

For wireless Internet service, as an alternative to broadband, the county would need 36-59 new towers, depending on their height, at a capital investment of up to $5 million for the poles only.

The Board of Supervisors first sought an analysis of the county’s wireless and broadband coverage gaps in March 2012, but the county allocated only $10,000 to the study. The Atlantic Group was selected in November 2013, and chose to focus its attention on Western Loudoun, largely for lack of funding and the “generally adequate” coverage to the east, according to a report by the Loudoun Communications Commission.

In Loudoun, only Verizon and Comcast, the existing county franchise cable providers, supply wired broadband. Both offer only “limited service availability” in the western portions of the jurisdiction, and neither has demonstrated an interest in dragging broadband farther into rural, or hilly, Loudoun.

As a result, quality wireless service has become essential. But there too, the wireless companies are coming up short. It is partly the fault of county regulations that restrict where new monopoles can be constructed, and partly the fault of residents who want new monopoles as far from them as possible.

The Atlantic Group has offered several suggestions, including a “Broadband Summit” to discuss roadblocks, goals and objectives to better coverage, modifications to the zoning ordinance to allow for 80-foot poles, the use of county-owned property for monopole locations, and the use of “stealth” technology, such as trees, to mask taller poles. Other changes possibly in the works — expedited approval for “minimally visible” towers between 80 and 120 feet, and a policy preference for towers that share access among providers.

The Loudoun Communications Commission, a board-initiated panel, also is recommending the expansion of wireless to the county’s rural hamlets, where it is largely banned today, and to the ridgelines of the Catoctin, Bull Run, Hogback, Short Hill and Blue Ridge mountains, so long as the poles are masked as trees or silos. Both changes would require amendments to the zoning ordinance.

Read the full story from the Washington Business Journal.