The more than 100 cell towers and 700 antennas installed throughout Fairfax County are a response to the increased use of devices like smart phones and iPads across Northern Virginia, and the call for better and faster service that's followed has cell phone carriers scrambling to keep up.
Text messaging, e-mailing and photo and video sharing have driven the demand for larger networks that can process more data, said Len Forkas, whose Reston-based company Milestone Communications already owns or manages more than 200 towers across the greater Washington, D.C., region and would do the same for the two towers in Vienna.
One of the more striking illustrations of the problem, Forkas says, is that iPhone users make up about 15 percent of AT&T's customers, but take up 90 percent of that network's capacity.
"This is the trend that's happening all over region, all over the country," Forkas said. "The network is going to have to be a lot faster, more robust and process a lot more data. And in order to do that cell carriers have to build more sites closer to where people live."
Where people live is often near schools or educational campuses, which have looked to cell towers as a source of revenue for years. Fairfax County Public Schools began leasing land for cell tower construction in 1995, and today, 17 schools have Milestone owned or operated structures on their property, including nearby Oakton and McLean high Schools. Some, like Centerville and South Lakes High Schools, have two or more poles on their properties.
As many as four cell phone carriers, like AT&T or Verizon, can lease space on a tower at once. Lease on the towers last 30 years, Forkas said, though the poles themselves are built to last a century.
Schools are ideal locations for these towers, Forkas says, because they often have existing structures, such as field light poles, in place; are easy for maintenance vehicles to access; and don't interfere with the character of residential neighborhoods, Forkas said. The alternative is putting them in more prominent places, he said, and pouring that money into a privately-owned property, instead of into the schools.
Particularly as the economy has worsened and school boards have searched for ways to close deficits in their budgets, revenue from cell towers has provided some relief, or funded programs that may have otherwise been eliminated.
In the past five years, revenue from the towers on FCPS property have totaled about $3.7 million, said Lee Ann Pender, director of facilities and transportation services for the school system.
That number seems small in the face of the roughly $2 billion FCPS spends on its schools each year, but Pender says it helps pay for projects and programs in safety and security and administrative technology, including the systems required for the FCPS Emergency Communication System.
Milestone collects rent from the wireless carriers on its towers, 40 percent of which goes to FCPS. Schools receive $25,000 each time a tower is built, and then $5,000 from each wireless carrier that leases space on the tower.
Municipalities do hold cell towers to standards set by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates how much frequency the poles can emit, commissioner Frank de la Fe said at the hearing for the Madison tower. The existing poles in Fairfax County, along with the proposed poles, are a thousand times lower than that standard, Forkas said.
"That's the only standard we have, and we are significantly below threshold for safety," Forkas said.
Patch will look at residents health concerns in a story later today.
No other locations in Vienna are being considered as sites for cell towers, Pender said, though Alexandria's Sandburg Middle School is a place they may consider. She declined to comment on how many towers may be installed county-wide in the next two years.