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3 firms eye sites for cell towers

| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

As more Pittsburgh-area residents clamor for data-gobbling smartphones, tablets and mobile hot spots, telecom companies are building cell towers and upgrading equipment at a record rate.

Three companies working to respond to the growing demand for bandwidth could construct new towers and antennae on as many as 61 Allegheny County-owned parcels, including vacant properties, county parks and county-owned buildings.

Jacksonville-based Parallel Infrastructure, South Fayette-based LJS Development and Houston-based Crown Communications will evaluate the sites, then market them to telecom companies for potential towers that could help the carriers fill gaps in their coverage or improve bandwidth in high-demand areas, said Lou Siyufy, president of LJS Development, on Wednesday.

Siyufy said consumers who used to settle for cellular and data coverage on the road and in their workplaces now want it at home as well.

“As long as you and I have smartphones, and we continue to do more with our phones, with apps for everything, it exhausts and depletes network capacity,” he said.

County officials said leasing county property could raise $1.9 million a year and improve access to 911 services for areas with poor cellphone service. Thirteen towers will be equipped to boost fire, police and emergency radio signals.

Amie Downs, spokeswoman for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said the companies must seek approval from municipalities before building towers or installing equipment.

Potential sites — 24 for LJS, 23 for Crown Castle and 14 for Parallel — are spread across the county in Boyce, Settlers Cabin, North and South parks; the Kane Centers in Scott and Ross; Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Lincoln-Lemington; and vacant lots in Wilkinsburg, Glassport, Swissvale and the Hill District.

“We've got plenty of cellphone towers already along McKnight Road, so I don't see why they'd need any more,” said Marc Quinn, 50, who lives near two potential sites on either side of McKnight Road in Ross.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report last week estimating that 91 percent of American adults owned some kind of cellphone as of May, and 56 percent of all Americans own a smartphone that connects to the Internet. That was up from 46 percent in February 2012 and 35 percent in May 2011.

The CTIA Wireless Association, a Washington, D.C.-based wireless-industry group, found that service providers added more new sites nationwide between 2010 and 2012 than they had in any other two-year period, said spokeswoman Amy Storey. There were 253,086 towers and antennae in CTIA's semi-annual survey at the end of 2010, and 301,779 by the end of 2012, she said. An estimate of the number of cell towers in Western Pennsylvania wasn't available.

The increasing demand for voice and data coverage must be balanced with resistance from people who don't want to see the antenna equipment and towers in their backyards, industry officials said.

“I've found thousands of sites, and I've built thousands of towers, but I've never found the ‘right' site — people always want it somewhere else,” Siyufy said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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