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.
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.
LeCount said that a temporary cellphone tower doesn’t pose some of the same concerns that a permanent tower would. However, he said, fair organizers are still trying to conceal the tower, which will be about 70 feet tall, by placing it behind a railroad car on the edge of the more-than-200-acre fairgrounds.
The temporary tower doesn’t seem to be drawing the same controversy. Exhibitors and fairgoers said there is a definite need for increased communication.
“We don’t have any objection. We appreciate that people are coming together and need to communicate while they are at the fair. It’s a great event for people all across Maine to learn about important issues including environmental issues,” said Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine. “The need for people to communicate is important.”
Ken Spalding, 61, a representative of RESTORE: The North Woods, has been attending the fair for the past 10 years. He said he enjoys how it brings a lot of things together that he is interested in, including environmental concerns booths, the food and the crafts tents.
“One thing in particular that I like about it are the things it does not have that other fairs have, like the midway with all the rip-off games and rides,” said Spalding, who does not have a cellphone. “I like that they try to be healthy and organic and they stick to that. Whether a cellphone tower is a glitch in that philosophy, I don’t know.”
The tower will also benefit local communities, who feel the effects of slower cell service during the fair, said Unity Selectman Clem Blakney.
“When all of a sudden you have 10-fold the population, it can overload the system,” he said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368