Clark Likely to See Better Cell Service

By Steven Cooper in News

“Hello? Are you there?”

Clark is close to finalizing negotiations with AT&T to erect three 15-foot cell towers on the roof of the Penguin Union Building.

Vice President of Administrative Services Bob Williamson is negotiating the contract. At a recent College Council meeting he said he believes they will either agree on a contract or walk away by Dec. 31. Williamson said he is confident Clark and AT&T will be able to reach an agreement.

“AT&T then still has to work with the city of Vancouver for all the planning and permitting,” Williamson said.

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According to Williamson, AT&T wants to put three cell panels and a communications box on the roof of PUB. The cell panels are 15-foot antennas and the communications box holds wires and other electrical equipment.

AT&T doesn’t need a traditional, 90-foot cell tower, because the roof of PUB is elevated and located on a hill.

Williamson said Clark’s facilities crew determined PUB is strong enough to hold the equipment with no modification. “Our assessment is that the placement of their panels and communication box will present no strain on the infrastructure,” Williamson said.

Williamson said that negotiation with AT&T is currently focused on three areas.

Clark is trying to negotiate access to the roof after the cell towers are installed. AT&T wants to restrict access to the roof to protect the equipment they want to install. But Williamson said Clark still needs access to the roof.  “If there’s structural damage to the roof—a major weather event for example—we’ll need to be on the roof,” Williamson said.

Clark is also trying to negotiate an escape clause that allows the college to end the contract even after AT&T installs the panels. “The state strongly encourages state agencies to have an escape clause in contracts,” said Williamson. “In all of our other contracts we have escape clauses.”

Williamson said, “From AT&T’s perspective, they don’t want us to on a whim decide we no longer want to do this, because they are going to invest a lot of money to put in these panels.”

Williamson said they’re trying to accommodate AT&T’s concerns. “We’re trying to find that sweet spot where they can achieve a return on their investment, but the college still has the ability to get out—with a sufficient amount of notice.”

Williamson said Clark is also still negotiating an exact rental price. Williamson has received help in this area from Washington’s State Department of Natural Resources.

“Most cell towers are out in pretty remote parts of the state,” explained Williamson. “They’re on top of hills or mountains, and those are run by the Department of Natural Resources. So it’s DNR that establishes rates for cell towers, antennas—those types of things.”

Williamson said Clark is negotiating rental rates using DNR’s assessment that the college is a “cite class one area.” That means Clark is a very valuable cell tower location because of its location next to a major thoroughfare, population center and recreation area.

Williamson said he’s also received guidance from three other Washington community colleges that have cell towers on their property. However, Williamson explained that these colleges have full-sized cell towers on their campuses—not the 15-foot cell panels Clark would have.

Williamson said determining how the college will use any money received through rental fees is an “open discussion.”

One concern college officials had early on was the potential radiation created by the addition of cell towers. “As a condition to negotiating with AT&T, we insisted on conducting what’s called a NIER test—non-ionized electromagnetic radiation test,” Williamson said.

A firm hired by Clark last May conducted a post-test to create a baseline before any cell panels are installed. According to Williamson, “The results indicate that current microwave levels are way below federal communication standards.”

“The same firm that we hired did a predictive model,” said Williamson “and based on what AT&T is proposing they don’t see that that is going to have any impact at all on the microwave radiation levels in this area.”

Clark also plans to conduct a post-test after panels are installed. Clark President Bob Knight said, “We’ll test periodically and if at any time they’re above the level, they have so many days to correct it, otherwise we’ll take [the panels] down.”

Even if the contract with AT&T is finalized, Clark still has the option of hosting other cell providers in the future. Williamson said, “The contract that we are negotiating does allow the college to entertain other providers coming on campus.” According to Williamson, the contract does protect AT&T’s location on PUB. “If we bring in someone like Verizon, we have to find a different spot for them,” said Williamson.

One obvious advantage to installing the cell towers will be the improved cell reception to anyone on or near campus using AT&T.

Campus security uses AT&T and used to have a major problem with reception. During the times when a dispatcher wasn’t on hand to transfer calls to officer radios, calls to security were forwarded directly to the cell phone of the officer on duty. This caused problems if the officer was in an area with no cell coverage.

Director of Security and Safety Ken Pacheco said security now uses “radio phones.” The system forwards calls directly to the radios of the officers on duty, eliminating any cell reception problems.

However, Pacheco emphasized that good cell reception is still needed for anyone using a cell phone to call security or emergency services. “If anybody needed something and all they had was a cell phone, you would hope that the reception on campus would be the best,” he said.

According to Williamson, if AT&T does install cell panels on campus, students with AT&T will have reception about as close to “the best” as possible.

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