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MPD communications tower approved for West Maui site

Commission has prohibited use of 5G in response to public opposition

The Maui Planning Commission approved a communications tower in West Maui that would serve as a backup in emergencies, though they barred the use of 5G at the site.

The county Department of Public Works had sought a county special use permit to replace the Maui Police Department’s Makila communications facility. The new facility would be used “exclusively by government agencies with MPD as the primary user,” according to project documents.

Plans call for building an 85-foot-tall tower with five microwave antennas as well as a single-story radio equipment building on a 3,200-square-foot portion of a 37.7-acre parcel in Launiupoko. The site would allow the tower to communicate with MPD’s existing facilities in Ulupalakua and East Molokai and a facility planned within the Lahainaluna Water Treatment Plant above Lahainaluna High School.

“Public safety communications, local government communications . . . has to be protected,” said Walter Pacheco, MPD communications coordinator. “It has to be robust enough, and it needs to have enough failback or alternate routes to be able to maintain when everything else is not operating. This is what this tower is about.”

Pacheco explained that the facility was not designed for 5G technology and was not intended to be used for that purpose. However, the project spurred opposition from testifiers (staff planner Jared Burkett said that 57 protest letters had come in just before the hearing), who said they were concerned about the tower opening the door to 5G.

“I’m concerned about agricultural land being used for wireless radiation towers that have been shown to damage plants and animals and insects, all of which are necessary for agriculture,” said Debra Greene, who was among a dozen testifiers at the meeting against the project. “I’m concerned about the disruption of the aesthetics. . . . I’m concerned about the reduced property values.”

She and others wondered why police couldn’t use alternatives like fiber optics.

Pacheco explained that they do use fiber optics, but that fires in the past have damaged equipment and caused outages. Cables have been taken out by backhoes in some cases.

“This is not a robust infrastructure. This is a physical infrastructure and subjected to things like fire,” Pacheco said.

The point-to-point microwave technology that the facility would use “is essentially a link between two specific locations” to move information between sites; it doesn’t go to a singular device, unlike 5G, which sends data from cell towers to phones, Pacheco said. The dishes would be placed high above the ground to direct energy away from the ground and toward the targeted stations.

Pacheco added that the department had “no intention” of doing 5G and that commercial activities are not permitted within a government-funded facility. He said frequencies that the tower would use (ranging from 6 to 18 gigahertz) are different from 5G itself.

“5G is not a frequency; it is a technology that uses frequencies in a specific manner to direct energy from the cell tower to the handset or to the user,” he explained. “So I have no problem with a limitation on the implementation of any form of 5G within the facility . . . as long as we remember that frequencies are just frequencies. What we do with them constitutes the technology called 5G.”

Commissioners voted 6-0 to approve the project with the conditions that the facility be reserved only for government use, that it be limited to point-to-point microwave technology and that it not use 5G. If officials wanted to do so in the future, they would have to return to the commission for approval and more public input.

“Although all of the testimony today was against this approval, I think the majority of the concerns were addressed very well by Mr. Pacheco,” commissioner Kawika Freitas said, adding that while he had some concerns, he believed the project would benefit emergency services.

“Sorry that this is going to block the view of some people, but safety of our residents is very important,” he said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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