The “On-School-Grounds” Debate: Connectivity vs. RF Exposure

The county Board of Supervisors will soon consider a proposal by Milestone Communications, LLC to build a 145-foot cell tower on the grounds of Western Albemarle High School (WAHS), and both citizens and local leaders are engaged in an increasingly polarized debate over the project’s perceived costs and benefits.

The Crozet Gazette reported that benefits of the tower include better connectivity for emergency personnel and students, both in the classroom and at home. “One reason the School Board is in favor of the tower project is because the first responders tell us they need to have the coverage,” said David Oberg, School Board representative. “To me, it’s a safety issue.”

The issues raised, involve questions about student health risks related to RF radiation and equal access to education as well as aesthetic and jurisdictional concerns. The tower proposal violates several sections of the county’s wireless ordinance, as it requests five antenna arrays instead of the specified maximum of three, fails visibility and concealment mandates, and is inconsistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

According to Kate Acuff, School Board chair, “The fundamental reason the School Board and School Division are pursuing cell tower agreements is equity for our students. We are now a School Division with 1:1 computing down to grade three, but the power of that resource to promote student education is undermined when students lack access to the internet.”  

The proposal is the most cost-effective option for the district, according to school officials. “To put up a tower ourselves could cost a million dollars and to lease space on a [private] tower could cost between $2,800 and $4,000 per month,” Socol added. Additionally, wireless carrier Shentel has committed to leasing space on the tower to provide better service to Crozet subscribers.

How will it work? The Gazette reported the school division will use the top antenna on the pole to broadcast a proprietary signal, which it receives at WAHS via fiber optic cable from the division’s data center, to area homes containing school-issued computers. Students could then connect to the internet by using a custom-made “MiFi” device, provided by their school. Under the proposed deal, if the school division allows the tower to be built on school property, the division can use the antenna space for free.

The approval process continues with a Board of Supervisors hearing on the special permit requests as well as a public hearing on September 12, reported the Gazette.

August 14, 2018     

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