Council Monday approved a pilot project that could eventually see cellphone carriers use municipal-owned street light poles as communication antennas.

Saanich carries out pilot project to improve cell phone coverage

Saanich has chosen an area with poor service as the site of an experiement that could improve telecommunication across the municipality, but could also invite concerns from residents fearful of radio-frequency emissions.

Council Monday approved a pilot project that would allow a telecommunication company to use municipal poles to deliver services to Gordon Point Estates, a subdivision in the Gordon Head neighbourhood facing Haro Strait towards the San Juan Islands.

Topography and the absence of third-party utility poles have shielded the area from cell coverage, said Harley Machielse, director of engineering in a presentation to council.

Poor cell coverage in turn has raised concerns among area residents, according to a letter from Ned Peterson, president of the Gordon Point Estates Residents Association.

“This is especially problematic to those with children or elderly family members, trades people and emergency responders needing to use their cell phones when in this dead zone,” he wrote in 2016. “It is also of concern in emergencies when cell coverage may be our only means of communication.”

Unless residents living within 100 metres of Gordon Head Road and Ferndale Road, they will lack cell phone coverage, leaving some residents of 200 homes with no means to receive or send calls or text messages unless they use a very weak AT&T signal coming from San Juan Island, said Pederson.

Under the pilot project council approved Monday, a Canadian-based carrier would place microcells on municipality-owned street poles to improve coverage in the area.

Machielse said Saanich would charge a nominal fee to recuperate operating costs. Down the line, the pilot could help Saanich decide whether to allow the same solution in other neighbourhoods as part and parcel of a comprehensive communication strategy to help meet rising demand for wireless services.

“The project would allow staff to monitor and report back on a number of aspects,” said Machielse. They include any technical challenges, aesthetic concerns, and neighbourhood reactions, he said.

Such a telecommunication strategy could help Saanich generate new revenues, and control various aspects of antenna systems, such as installations, as well design and siting. It could also help reduce the need for independent monopoles and towers, he added.

Ottawa — not Saanich — exercises approval authority over communication towers, through Innovation, Science and Economic Development, much to the chagrin of residents, as several recent cases have demonstrated. While Saanich’s proposed telecommunication strategy would not change this power balance, Saanich could gain a greater say in areas that had previously frustrated residents.

This said, Machielse acknowledged that any future strategy would depend on input from residents and the cooperation of carriers. The question of whether carriers would be interested in using local municipal infrastructure depends largely on their bottom lines, he said.

“We would be one potential conduit for them to help supply the network,” he said.

Machielse said in his presentation that all telecommunication equipment must comply with national health standards concerning radiofrequency. Health Canada, he said, continues to monitor and analyze scientific studies, including both internal and external reviews of the authoritative literature, as well as their own research.

The public, however, has also heard from residents, who are concerned about the potential proliferation of antennas.

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