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Surprise considers raising cell tower height limit

Sketchy service pockets prompts calls for solutions

Posted 5/26/23

Taller cell phone towers could be in Surprise’s future to help reception in some areas of the city where it’s currently sketchy.

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Subscriber Exclusive

Surprise considers raising cell tower height limit

Sketchy service pockets prompts calls for solutions


Taller cell phone towers could be in Surprise’s future to help reception in some areas of the city where it’s currently sketchy.

City Manager Bob Wingenroth told the Surprise City Council during a recent presentation on service in the city that it makes sense to have a 100-foot limit in some areas.

The current code sets the height limit for the towers at 65 feet.

City staff invited multiple cell service carriers to provide an overview of cellular service and a strategy to handle growth. City officials met in person with representatives from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, which was the only company that was able to give a presentation to the Surprise City Council earlier this month.

“It’s important that we get that height so we can reach out to as many customers as possible,” Michael Fulton, director of regional network engineering and operations for T-Mobile, told the City Council May 16.

Currently, nearly 50 cell towers are spread out across Surprise, but almost none in the northern Asante area of the city. The towers are hidden on buildings, city water tanks, utility power poles, street lights and the traditional monopole.

Fulton and Alex Loggan, senior solutions architect for the cell company, said they’re looking to expand in Surprise with the growth that’s coming.

“Right now, our network expansion strategy is to increase coverage and/or capacity in a given area,” Fulton told the Council. “We’re trying to fill in holes in the network — where somebody doesn’t have coverage in their bathroom or the clubhouse in the HOA doesn’t have coverage.”

Cell phones are crucial these days to check on family on family members and public safety.

“Cell phone service probably initially was a luxury for many of us, and in some cases it was the elite that had the opportunity to use a cell phone,” Wingenroth said during the City Council presentation. “But now it is integral to our lives, in every aspect of our lives.”

District 2 City Councilmember Aly Cline said phone are increasingly becoming useful in all ways for her heavily dominated senior district.

“They’ve all learned how to use their cell phones now,” Cline said. “They’ve learned to us QR codes to look up menus at restaurants. They’ve learned new things, not to just talk to the grandkids. They’ve actually learned to use their phones for data as well as making a phone call.”

Wingenroth even alluded to the outcry from some residents for better cell service across Surprise.

“I think all of you here, probably on a daily basis, get complaints from our residents about the lack of being able to get cell phone service,” Wingenroth said, directed at the City Council.

Surprise’s role is to approve cell phone towers built within the city limits. But because the provider business is highly regulated, companies can’t share specific plans for future towers now.

T-Mobile officials said one of its 5G towers can support up to 3,000 customers depending upon configuration. It works by mobile customers moving from tower to tower as they move about the city. Stationary devices, however, stay connected to one tower.

District 4 City Councilmember Ken Remley noted that 15,000 homes are currently permitted for construction in Surprise.

“If you’ve got 3,000 people going to one cell tower, it sounds like you have a lot of cell towers you’re going to have to be putting in pretty darn soon,” Remley said. “And there’s no sign of it slowing down.”

Each cell phone company uses its own equipment.

Remley said signals are low in the Sterling Grove neighborhood in west Surprise.

“I’m telling you, you go along there and suddenly you’re dark,” Remley said. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to be hearing from some of those folks if they don’t have any cell service over there.”

District 1 City Councilman Nick Haney said there is a misconception that the city is anti-cell towers.

“When I’m getting close to my house, my friends know I’m getting close because I just lose them,” Haney said. “We joke about it because it’s a good way to cope.”

Mayor Skip Hall mentioned the Prasada area as a need for cell service.

“It just seems like [Village at Prasada developer] Josh Simon would be very amenable to have a tower out there,” Hall said. “On any one day, there are thousands of people there.”

District 3 Councilmember Patrick Duffy’s parents, who live in Sierra Montana, were forced to subscribe to a landline again because of poor cell phone service in their neighborhood.

Jason Stone can be reached at jstone@iniusa.org. We’d like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.