Temporary mobile antennas are sprouting up around the city. Even though Verizon typically uses the cell phone infrastructure for natural disasters—and even though the mayor declared an emergency to get them installed—the devices are being posted at city property under the auspice of improving service every day.
“I was away for awhile, and I came home and the first thing that hit me right in the face was the new cell phone tower that’s up behind the fire station,” says Santa Fe resident Sherri Role. Role complained residents should have had more notice and information before cell structures were placed.
It appears the connection trailers are just a Band-Aid for the city’s notoriously bad, wildly inconsistent cell service. But Mayor Javier Gonzales took the unusual step of saying a citywide emergency made them necessary.
Insufficient telecommunication service “has caused or is causing danger, injury or damage to person and property within the city,” according to Gonzales’ Nov. 21 proclamation. Verizon plans to install temporary cell sites in seven places around Santa Fe to combat the problem after Gonzales issued that directive, then two other proclamations.
The mayor used his power as chief executive officer in his most recent notice. Before that, he used the Riot Control Ordinance in an initial proclamation, but it only allowed the “emergency” to last three days. With the mayor’s revised proclamation, cell sites will be up for six months while Verizon works on a permanent solution through the city’s regular land-use approval process, says city spokesman Matt Ross.
The company uses the cell sites, called Cell on Wheels (COWs), for disasters or very large events like the Balloon Fiesta, Verizon Public Relations Manager Jeannine Brew says. Not only do COWs increase cell connection during large events, but Verizon installs them during hurricanes and wildfires when regular cell towers are damaged, she says.
What was the catastrophe that made placement of cell sites so urgent when service in Santa Fe has always been spotty? That’s not entirely clear, and the move is raising as many questions as it has answered.
SFR contacted the police department to see if they knew about any recent life-threatening situations related to lack of service. Emergency responders use a radio dispatch system rather than cell phones to send out officers, says SFPD spokesman Greg Gurule. “Cell phones aren’t a critical link in police services,” he says. Although Gurule didn’t know of an endangered individual not able to get through to 911, he says signal strength is a concern in emergency circumstances.
According to Ross, the mayor felt service blanks in Santa Fe reached an emergency and that Verizon’s temporary sites will address dead zones. Equipment is slated for the Santa Fe Community College, Sandoval Parking Garage, Genoveva Chavez Community Center, Upper Canyon Road, Santa Fe Water Division, the fire station on St. Michael’s Drive and the fire station at Fort Marcy Park. Prior to the mayor’s proclamation, an existing tower was up on the east side of the Water Division, and now a temporary cell site is on the building’s west side.
The portable cell sites aim to increase signal strength for area callers. Brew said not all sites will get COWs trailers, but the company is “working through exactly what the solutions will be for the others sites.” She wouldn’t go into detail about how the equipment works, but she likens the network as a series of speakers. “One speaker can only provide so much sound, which may be fine for 10 people. If you have 100 people in the same room, you’ll need more and/or bigger speakers,” she tells SFR.
Brew stopped short of saying that the company faced too many hurdles getting city approval for new towers, but did note that the main challenge of expanding coverage are zoning and permits. If carriers can’t get approval for sites, residents don’t get service, she says.
Even though Verizon got approval for the sites quickly under Mayor Gonzales’ proclamation, Santa Fe already has a policy streamlining the infrastructure approval process. City Councilor Joseph Maestas says he’s suspicious about why the mayor used executive authority to allow Verizon immediate use of city property. “Maybe the mayor was unaware we have policy on the books to address this,” he says.
According to Maestas, the city can speed up site approval to increase service, but all telecommunication franchises are supposed to have equal opportunity and placement of facilities should be done on a competitive basis. Maestas—who is running for mayor in the March election to replace Gonzales, who is not seeking city office—says the mayor’s vague proclamation of an emergency was not enough justification for allowing Verizon an advantage over other companies. “I want to make sure we don’t let any company have a monopoly on the exclusive use of city facilities,” he says.
Anti-telecommunication activist Arthur Firstenberg also questioned the legality of an executive order. Firstenberg says the mayor should have had authorization from City Council.
Firstenberg, who has filed a number of lawsuits against the city and also sued a neighbor over use of an iPhone, also brings up a Gonzales family-owned radio station and several cell towers. George and Celine Gonzales (the mayor’s parents) are listed as owners of a tower at 102 Taos St. on the Santa Fe county assessor’s website. A building permit from 2015 confirms their ownership. George died in March of that year. An architectural plan from 2013 shows the uppermost tier of six antennas on the tower belong to Verizon. “It looks bad because the mayor’s family does business with Verizon. To me, that’s a conflict of interest,” Firstenberg says.
City Spokesman Ross confirmed that the Gonzales family has been “part of the cell phone tower industry for over 25 years,” and that leases with Verizon on towers are owned and managed by third parties. The mayor himself has not been part of any tower business at any time and has not derived any financial benefit from these towers or leases, Ross argues, noting that mayor kept talks with the company at arm’s length and did not attend any meetings with Verizon or any other wireless carrier or industry professionals regarding telecommunications in the city. The meetings that led to the most recent emergency declaration were held by senior staff, Ross says.
City councilors made it clear that Verizon’s spotty cell service was irksome when the Finance Committee voted against renewing a contract with Verizon for GPS devices in city vehicles two months ago. Ross says that “the need for improvement was a big part of the conversation around deciding not to renew that particular contract. Verizon has acknowledged those concerns and is working to make improvements in response.” Verizon paid Santa Fe $50,400 for permission to place the emergency cell structures around the city.
Meanwhile, Santa Fe prevented one local telecommunication company from building infrastructure, and that company is also crying foul. NMSurf was granted automatic approval to build a tower in accordance with federal law when the city failed to act on the company’s application within an allotted time, yet Santa Fe sued NMSurf for building the tower. NMSurf Public Relations Manager Alisha Catanach says lawsuits with the city have nearly put the company out of business. While NMSurf fights for the opportunity to build infrastructure, “Verizon just gets access without having to go through the red tape,” Catanach says.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement to about the capacity of existing towers to Ross. We've removed it.