The future site of a communications tower at George J. Mitchell Field on Harpswell Neck. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
Construction is underway on a 199-foot wireless communications tower at George J. Mitchell Field that should improve cellular service on Harpswell Neck and may boost signals on the islands too.
Blue Sky Towers III LLC, of Massachusetts, is building the tower. Work started June 7 and the company expects to finish the tower by Oct. 1, according to Elizabeth Thompson, the company’s general counsel.
AT&T is the only carrier with a deal to have equipment on the tower so far, so the project will primarily benefit AT&T customers in the beginning. Blue Sky expects AT&T’s equipment to be operational by Oct. 1.
The tower will be able to accommodate three more carriers. “Blue Sky is actively marketing and communicating its progress on this site to all of the nationwide broadband service providers,” including T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless, as well as Dish Network, Thompson said in an email.
The height of 199 feet will avoid a requirement to install warning lights that kicks in at 200 feet, according to Town Administrator Kristi K. Eiane.
The town issued a request for proposals for the project and Blue Sky offered the “best deal for the town, economically,” Eiane said.
Blue Sky will pay the town $22,200 for the first year of its lease, with a 2% increase each year. In addition to the lease payments, Blue Sky will pay the town a lump sum of $35,000 upon completion of the tower and another $35,000 each time it sublets space on the tower to another nationwide carrier.
Blue Sky will lease the site from the town for an initial term of 10 years. Automatic renewals every 10 years will extend the lease to 40 years unless Blue Sky opts out.
If Blue Sky and the town want to continue the arrangement beyond 40 years, a new agreement would need voter approval. Blue Sky will remove the tower and restore the land to its original condition when the lease ends.
The tower is going up on a cross road near the entrance to the property and the site of a former water tower. The town demolished the water tower in 2018.
While the primary objective of the project is to improve cellular service in areas where it’s spotty or nonexistent, a secondary goal is to improve Harpswell’s emergency communications system.
Equipment on the new tower will interconnect with equipment on the Crown Castle tower on Mountain Road and, eventually, with a new tower at the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department, on Orr’s Island.
The town has applied for a grant to replace the Orr’s Island tower through a military program called Innovative Readiness Training. Eiane hopes to receive approval to carry out the project in 2022.
The town plans to replace the current 80-foot tower with a 100-foot tower that meets today’s more stringent wind-loading standards, according to John Fasella, of Raymond-based Panther Pines Consulting LLC. Fasella provides emergency communications consulting services to the town.
The equipment on the Mitchell Field tower and the replacement of the Orr’s Island tower are part of a broader project to improve radio communications between emergency services in Harpswell and the Cumberland County Regional Communications Center in Windham, which dispatches those services.
“The fire departments generally have good communications, but there are a few areas in town where they can’t communicate as well as they could,” Fasella said.
Harpswell Fire Administrator Art Howe said that those “weak spots” include the northwest corner of Harpswell Neck, around Barnes Point; as well as what he calls the “deep south” of the Neck, around Potts Point.
The coverage problems there primarily impact the low-powered portable radios that serve as a “lifeline” for firefighters, Howe said.
The town’s project will boost coverage in those areas and provide redundancy to the system, according to Fasella.
Another aspect of the project will be the addition of an alarm system, which will alert the dispatch center if part of the Harpswell system goes down.
Blue Sky will provide space for town equipment on the Mitchell Field tower at no charge. The town will pay for the equipment and labor to install it.