September 8, 2013

Common Ground Fair to erect bigger, better cellphone tower during annual run

By Rachel Ohm
Staff Writer

UNITY — Organizers of the Common Ground Country Fair will be setting up a temporary cellphone tower at the fairgrounds this year to meet a growing demand for service.

click image to enlarge

Crowds of people gather during the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity in 2011. Organizers are planning to erect a larger, more powerful temporary cellphone tower during the fair's Sept. 20-22 run, to serve the anticipated 10-fold increase in the town's population during the fair.

Staff file photo by David Leaming


Population: 2,090 (2010 U.S. Census).


Size: 70 feet tall.

Location: outskirts of the fairgrounds


Dates: Sept. 20-22.

Time: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Location: Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Fairgrounds, 294 Crosby Brook Road, Unity.

Tickets: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, free for children 12 and younger, handicapped citizens and fair volunteers.


Phone: 568-4142.

Fair attendance 2012: nearly 60,000 over three days.

This isn't the first time the fair has had a cellphone tower, but this year's tower will be larger and will connect to fiber-optic cables in order to provide more service to more people, said fair director Jim Ahearne.

"In the past we used to say cellphone coverage here isn't any good, so don't depend on a cellphone," Ahearne said.

The philosophy seems to fit with, if not reflect, the fair's strong reverence for the farm practices, folk traditions and artisan crafts that it celebrates, although recent concerns about safety and growing demand for cell service by fairgoers and participants alike have initiated a need for change.

During the fair's three days, it draws roughly 25,000 people on each weekend day, its busiest days, to Unity, a small town with a population of about 2,000. The fair is put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, an organization designed to promote the growth of organic food and environmentally sound farming practices and provide support for farmers and gardeners.

"I think organic farming, which is at the core of what we are all about, is not a science built in the dark ages. It's very contemporary, and there is a modern approach to the latest science and understanding biodiversity in the farmscape," said Ahearne. "We celebrate the past, but we also try to embrace the appropriate technologies when they are helpful."

That means cellphones and the technology that supports them, which have found their place at the fair for a few reasons, he said.

For one, a lot of vendors and exhibitors use mobile payment systems, relying on mobile systems for transactions or the management of their business at the fair; and in general, cellphones are much more common in today's culture, Ahearne said. Last year the fair introduced an interactive map of the grounds that could be downloaded to cellphones for access to event schedules and social media updates. Without adequate cellphone service, though, the application couldn't do everything it was designed to do.

There has also been a concern for safety at the fair, said facilities coordinator Vernon LeCount, who said that the large amount of cellphone traffic generated by the fair caused concern about access to 911 and other emergency services.

The state Emergency Service Communication Bureau said it didn't have any reports of trouble accessing 911 during the time of the fair last year, but administrative director Harry Lanphear said the temporary tower would be a good idea anyway.

"It's probably a wise thing to do, given that it is a rural area and lots of people go to that fair," he said.

Attendance for the fair is usually around 60,000 for the three days it runs, Ahearne said. This year it is set to open at 9 a.m. Sept. 20.

Ahearne said last year was the first time the fair tried to boost service using a cell repeater, which amplifies and retransmits local signals to improve their strength. Service in the rural area is usually spotty at best, although in the last year Verizon has activated 4G LTE service in Unity, a faster and more reliable network, according to Verizon New England area spokesman Michael Murphy.

In addition, he said, the temporary tower this year will function as its own generator-powered site, which is similar to a traditional cellphone tower that connects into a local network.

The construction of cellphone towers around the state has drawn controversy in some areas from people who are opposed to the way they look and may have health or environmental concerns. In the town of Starks, a woman was charged with assault after an incident that occurred outside a Planning Board meeting to discuss a building application for a cellphone tower. In Rockland, U.S. Cellular dropped plans to construct a 100-foot tower near a golf course last year where many residents were opposed to the tower because it would affect their views.

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