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Commission approves 5G cell tower off Saddle Road

The Windward Planning Commission gave the go-ahead to construct a cell tower off of Saddle Road 13 miles from Waikoloa Village.

Telecommunications company AT&T filed an application last month for a use permit to build a 105-foot cell tower on the grounds of Kilohana Girl Scout Camp, located near the 44-mile marker on Route 200 and about 1.5 miles north of where Saddle Road breaks off from Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

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The tower will be disguised as a pine tree and will be located about 112 feet from the camp’s main lodge building. It will provide a platform for not only AT&T’s commercial wireless phone service, but also its fifth-generation — or 5G — technology.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Planning Commission, AT&T representative Bryce Novak said the facility will fill a “significant gap in coverage” along the highway, particularly near the Pohakuloa Training Area.

“Our team continuously receives complaints from customers who often drive between Hilo and Kona,” Novak said, explaining that service regularly drops out along the drive.

Novak added that improving cellular coverage is particularly appropriate given the increased need for telehealth and internet services in rural areas during the pandemic.

This is the fourth cell tower AT&T has proposed to build on the Big Island in the last two years, having already proposed towers in Kurtistown, Hawaiian Paradise Park and south of Leilani Estates — all of which the Planning Commission has already approved. Novak said all of these towers serve to expand FirstNet, a public safety broadband network established by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Unlike the other towers, which each generated a significant amount of backlash from locals concerned about potential — and, so far, scientifically unfounded — health effects of cellular radiation, only one person testified about the Kilohana tower Thursday. Hawaii County Fire Chief Todd Kazuo offered his support for the facility, saying it is especially important to improve coverage on a dangerous road like Saddle Road.

“This is part of the old Saddle highway, it’s a dangerous location, a lot people are taking tight curves at too-high speeds, and they flip a car,” Kazuo said. “So having good coverage so people can call 911 is very important.”

Kazuo added that the buildout of FirstNet will provide helpful redundancy in case first responders’ radios lose connectivity on the road.

The Commission voted to approve AT&T’s application without much discussion.

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With the Kilohana tower approved, Novak said AT&T has plans for one additional facility to expand FirstNet, which would be “on the other side of Saddle Road, coming from Hilo,” he said. The exact location of that facility has not been determined, he said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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