Cell phone sites offered Howard County seeks rental income from antenna properties

'A win-win situation'

Need for locations increasing with use of mobile phones

December 29, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Howard County is banking on a unique approach to market publicly owned land to a telecommunications industry that's desperately seeking sites for cellular phone antennas to bring millions of dollars a year into county coffers.

Though other area jurisdictions have made money from cell phone companies renting antenna locations, Howard is the only one aggressively pursuing these customers.

County officials have identified 74 publicly owned sites for clustering antennas and have hired a company -- Apex Site Management based in Conshohocken, Pa. -- to market them to cell phone companies willing to pay a monthly rent to place antennas on the sites.

With rents expected to range from $300 to $2,000 a month, analysts say the potential annual income for the county could be several million dollars.

"We think this is a good situation," said Alan M. Ferragamo, assistant to the director of the county Department of Public Works, who spearheaded a yearlong effort to identify the sites. "They need places to put these antennas, and they have the money. We have the places and can always use the money."

Howard County's location -- equidistant between Baltimore and Washington -- makes it prime real estate for the wireless companies trying to serve the burgeoning number of cell phones used by residents and commuters passing through.

The county has pocketed $75,000 this year from antenna rents on eight publicly owned sites, including Bethany Lane Water Tank in Ellicott City and Snowden River Water Tank in Columbia.

Anne Arundel County leases more than a dozen county-owned sites to wireless companies, reaping more than $226,000 a year, said Spurgeon Eismeier, real estate manager in Anne Arundel's Office of Central Services.

The Baltimore City Department of Public Works has agreed to allow a cellular phone company to rent space atop a water treatment facility in Lake Montebello in the northeast section for the next 20 years, which is expected to generate an average of $12,000 a year, said Kurt Kocher, a public works spokesman.

Baltimore County lawmakers are considering zoning law changes that would encourage companies to put antennas on existing structures and in nonresidential areas, while Carroll County is waiting for inquiries about its potential sites.

But no other local jurisdiction has taken as aggressive an approach as Howard, which hired Apex in September to market the sites.

The 74 sites include 27 in Ellicott City, 19 in Columbia, eight in North Laurel, seven in Elkridge, three each in Cooksville, Jessup and Savage, two in Scaggsville, and one each in Dayton and Marriottsville.

Gary Pudles, vice president and general counsel of Apex, said the county is working on two deals involving an unknown number of sites.

Some of the 74 sites are parks and golf courses, but almost all feature existing structures -- such as water pump stations and firehouses -- that can hold the antennas, eliminating the need for building new towers, which is the prime cause of public opposition to cell phone antennas, Pudles said.

"We can just put the antennas on the rooftops," he said. "It costs less and very few people will get angry at a rooftop."

Phenomenal growth

The growth in the demand for wireless service is phenomenal. There are 53 million wireless subscribers nationally, said Tim Ayers, a spokesman for the Washington-based Cellular Tele- communications Industry Association. That number is expected to increase to 58 million by the end of this month.

In the Baltimore-Washington region, about 1.5 million people -- more than 20 percent of the residents -- use wireless phones.

As the number of subscribers increases, so does the number of antenna sites. As of June, there were 38,650 sites in the country, Ayers said. That figure is expected to increase to about 125,000 by 2006 -- a far cry from the 1,732 antenna sites 10 years ago.

"Maryland has been one of the most progressive states in this area [of antenna placement]," Ayers said. "Whenever we travel to other regions of the country, we always use Maryland as a model."

The number of companies willing to offer wireless service is growing, too. In 1995, the Federal Communications Commission auctioned more than $7 billion in licenses to carriers that wanted to fill the airwaves with personal communication services (PCS), the new digital wireless technology.

PCS offers better clarity than older analog cellular phones, along with secured channels and services such as voice mail and call waiting.

The drawback is that the phones operate at radio frequencies that travel shorter distances -- requiring antennas to be built closer together.

That has drawn protest from residents, who argue that more antennas are not aesthetically pleasing and emit nonionizing microwave radiation that poses a threat to public health.

Baltimore County officials are considering imposing a four-month moratorium on cellular telephone towers in rural areas. Dade County, Fla., has adopted a moratorium.

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