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The cell tower by I-495 at the Old Dominion Drive bridge in McLean (via Google Maps)

(Updated at 3:45 p.m. on 1/5/2023) The search is still on for a new site to host a cell tower in McLean that has to be removed to make room for the widening Capital Beltway.

The monopole, which is owned by American Cell Towers and supports AT&T and T-Mobile service, was officially decommissioned on Dec. 9, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“Cell providers are working to minimize any potential impacts to existing service, and VDOT is working with the project’s design-build contractor to facilitate a relocated cell tower as soon as possible,” the department told FFXnow.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors expressed concern at a Sept. 30 transportation committee meeting that losing the tower may cause wireless service disruptions, something that AT&T admitted was a possibility.

Fears of disruptions were particularly high after the removal of a cell facility at Lake Anne in Reston resulted in slow, spotty service for residents in that area over the summer, including for 911 calls.

Fortunately, those anticipated issues don’t seem to have come to fruition. Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust’s office, which represents McLean, says it hasn’t gotten any emails from constituents about the decommissioned cell tower, as of Dec. 20.

VDOT had hoped to see the tower relocated by Dec. 31 — an extension from the original deadline of Sept. 30 — but a new location still hasn’t been identified. VDOT didn’t respond by press time when asked if the deadline got extended again.

“[There’s] no timeline yet,” Jane Edmondson, Foust’s chief of staff, said by email. “The County has not yet received an application for a new location.”

Located by the Old Dominion Drive bridge, the 135-foot-tall monopole needs to be moved to make room for the I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project, which is adding about three miles of toll lanes on the Beltway from the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons to the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean.

The project will also replace the Old Dominion bridge, which has one lane each for eastbound and westbound traffic. The new bridge will have two lanes and a 14-foot-wide shared-use path on the south side. (Correction: This article initially said two lanes would be added on the bridge in each direction.)

While touted as necessary to mitigate traffic congestion, 495 NEXT has been criticized by some McLean residents as harmful to their neighborhoods and the environment.

Construction began in mid-2022 and is expected to continue into 2026, with the new express lanes opening in 2025.

Photo via Google Maps

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A sample design of the county’s redesigned website (via Fairfax County)

Fairfax County is refreshing its website.

A website redesign is currently underway as the county looks to update “the look and feel based on new design trends to serve our community better,” the county’s digital content lead Greg Licamele told FFXnow in an email.

The new website is expected to be launched in early 2023. No interruptions or downtime are expected for the site or services while work is underway, county officials confirmed.

The project is being led by the Department of Information Technology and was laid out in its 2023 adopted plan.

Residents can take a peek at sample designs for both the desktop and mobile versions and can provide feedback via survey until tomorrow (Dec. 7).

Making sure the website is easy to navigate and accessible on mobile devices is a county priority.

“Mobile devices continue to be the main way people see the county website, we’re also conscious of presenting information that works well on smartphones,” Licamele said.

The refresh for both desktop and mobile includes a new color palette and “contemporary” design tweaks.

It will also add a Spanish option for the Fairfax Virtual Assistant, a chatbot that provides automated information on some topics.

Additionally, the IT department plans to integrate some website content with voice assistant devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

Beyond updating the design and compatibility, the refresh was also prompted by resident requests to have important services and items accessible on the homepage.

“For years, we’ve heard people’s desire to have important services highlighted, which is what our current homepage provides with the Find, Pay, Report and Register section at the top,” Licamele said. “The proposed refreshed design keeps our laser focus on those top tasks people want to find easily, as well as spotlighting a few more priority items such as the county’s Strategic Plan.”

The county’s website was last redesigned five years ago, in 2017. There will be “no additional costs associated” with the new website update, the county says.

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The cell tower by I-495 at the Old Dominion Drive bridge in McLean (via Google Maps)

A cell tower by the Capital Beltway in McLean must be removed before the end of this year to make way for the road’s widening, leaving Fairfax County and state transportation leaders scrambling to prevent future service disruptions.

The 135-foot-tall monopole stands right next to I-495 at the Old Dominion Drive bridge, which will be replaced by a new two-lane bridge with a shared-use path as part of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project.

VDOT determined that the tower needs to be relocated “well over a year ago,” but no progress has been made to identify a temporary or permanent new site, Megaprojects Director Susan Shaw told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Friday (Sept. 30).

“The providers to date have said that there is no temporary location that’s acceptable to them,” she said. “…We’re all working very hard to try to resolve it, and I think we’ve tried to provide a lot of ideas for where they might find acceptable locations on VDOT right of way, but again, we’re not experts. It’s very specific technically in terms of what would work for them and maintaining the kind of service that they have.”

Construction on 495 NEXT is underway, but work hasn’t started yet on the Old Dominion bridge.

American Cell Towers, which owns the monopole, initially faced a Sept. 30 deadline for the removal, but that has been extended to Dec. 31. The tower has to be decommissioned in November so that the utilities can be taken off and the structure dismantled, according to Shaw.

In conversations with AT&T and T-Mobile, the providers that use the pole, VDOT was told that service along the Beltway won’t be affected, but service for the surrounding communities “would be degraded,” particularly during periods of peak demand, Shaw said.

AT&T confirmed that some of its customers “may experience intermittent wireless service disruptions near Old Dominion Drive and the Capital Beltway.”

“We, like other carriers, are being forced to remove our antennas so that they can widen the Beltway,” an AT&T spokesperson said. “We apologize for the inconvenience, and we are working with state and Fairfax County officials to identify an alternative site for our equipment. In the meantime, we have optimized other nearby sites to try and extend coverage until this is resolved.”

The provider added that people who experience disruptions can utilize its Wi-Fi Calling service instead.

While the availability of other cell carriers in the area suggests 911 calls won’t be affected, Shaw said the providers told VDOT they “couldn’t guarantee” that there would be no impact. American Towers didn’t immediately respond to FFXnow’s requests for comment. Read More

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Morning Notes

A frog statue looks up at Giant in University Mall (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Army Nurse Thanks Fairfax County Firefighters — “Sunday, August 7, was a powerful and inspiring day at Station 11, Penn Daw, C-Shift. U.S. Army Captain Paul Petrie, an OR Nurse at Fort Belvoir, stopped by to thank the shift for their role in saving his life in May. Injuries he sustained are fatal a vast majority of the time. Watch to learn more!” [FCFRD/Facebook]

Long-Term Fix for AT&T Service Issues in Reston Coming — A permanent proposal to restore full cell service in the Lake Anne area isn’t expected to come until later this fall, according to Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn. Alcorn says AT&T is looking at installing equipment on the new Fellowship House roof, but that will require approvals from Fairfax County and the Reston Association Design Review Board. [Patch]

Fairfax County Parkway Targeted for Traffic Enforcement — “Officers from our Motor Squad are focusing on traffic enforcement on the Fairfax County Parkway this month. On the first day of this enforcement campaign, an officer stopped a car going 108 MPH on the County Parkway at Barta Road, a 50 MPH zone!” [FCPD/Instagram]

Vienna Trail Closed for Repairs — “The Wildwood Park trail that runs between Follin Lane SE and Niblick Drive SE, along with the Mashie Drive Park entrance, will be closed tomorrow, Tuesday, Aug. 9, between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. for repairs. Please use caution when in the area and plan for detours.” [Town of Vienna/Twitter]

Police Seek Help with Centreville Cold Case — “One of the DNA-analysis companies that Fairfax County Police in Virginia have been working with is Texas-based Othram, which is now crowdfunding help to identify a woman who was found dead…nearly 30 years ago. Even today, there isn’t a lot that police know about the woman, whose remains were found in 1993 near a cedar tree around what’s now the corner of Sharpsburg Drive and Calvary Place in Centreville.” [WTOP]

Connector Buses Not Affected by Metro Shutdown — The closure of several Blue and Yellow Line stations next month will have no impact on Fairfax Connector routes, but instead of taking a train, passengers will transfer to free shuttle buses. Drop-off and pick-up locations at the Huntington, Van Dorn Street, Franconia, and Crystal City stations may also be slightly different. [Fairfax County Government]

Reminder to Get Kids Immunized for School — “Parents, you’ve probably reminded your kids about summer reading and started purchasing school supplies. Have you booked your immunization appointment yet? Don’t wait until the last minute, make sure your children are up to date with their school required immunizations.” [Fairfax County Health Department/Facebook]

Maryland Toll Lanes Project on Hold — “A key federal agency has delayed Maryland’s plan to build toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and I-270, the latest setback for the star-crossed project. The move was immediately criticized by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who said the delay will imperil the state’s efforts to ease one of the nation’s worst bottlenecks.” [Maryland Matters]

It’s Tuesday — Humid throughout the day. High of 94 and low of 78. Sunrise at 6:18 am and sunset at 8:12 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Boats docked at Lake Anne Plaza (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Cellular service issues continue to plague residents in the Lake Anne area of Reston, but a recently added, temporary truck will at least ensure AT&T customers can call 911.

A spokesperson for AT&T said that since Friday (July 29) — when information about the outage was first released — the company has been trying to restore an antenna in the area.

AT&T says it is working on placing a temporary cellular support truck in the Lake Anne area to help give customers a boost and improve service until the issue is resolved.

“We have deployed temporary emergency coverage for first responders, and are working as quickly as possible to restore full service in the area. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience,” an AT&T spokesperson told FFXnow.

The company did not provide information on when the issue was first identified and what efforts have been made to restore the site.

However, Fairfax County said in a statement that it worked with the telecommunications company “to expedite placement of a cellular support vehicle” that was put in place Saturday morning (July 30).

“The AT&T cellular support vehicle allows for residents to call 9-1-1 and provides cellular coverage for public safety,” county spokesperson Tony Castrilli said. “The full restoration for AT&T customers in Lake Anne is scheduled to be completed in two weeks.”

The problem comes after Verizon and other cell carriers removed a cell phone communications facility at the rooftop of Lake Anne Fellowship House, which is set to be demolished next year.

Fairfax County is encouraging residents to use a landline or make calls through the WiFi on devices where that’s an option.

A spokesperson for Verizon said the company is actively looking for a replacement site. Its original plans fell earlier this year. Since then, the company says that it has been looking for another site but with no success.

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Verizon truck drives through water while turning from Baron Cameron Avenue to Reston Parkway after rain (photo by Ed Schudel)

Verizon may soon have a solution for slow cell service in the Lake Anne area.

The cell phone provider is actively looking for sites of a new cell tower after its facility at Lake Anne Fellowship House was removed in anticipation of the building’s demolition.

“Despite being met by some initial resistance from the county architectural review board, we continue to work on securing new real estate to deploy a replacement site,” Verizon spokesperson Karen Schulz wrote in statement to FFXnow.

Earlier this year, concerns about incompatibility with the area prompted Site Link Wireless to withdraw a plan for six antenna on the roof of Heron House, a 15-story condominium building at the center of Lake Anne Village Center.

Verizon is actively working to secure alternate locations for a new small site in that neighborhood, Schulz said.

So far, surrounding sites service the immediate neighborhood and provide coverage, but some customers have reported congestion and slower speeds.

Schulz noted that Fairfax County’s zoning ordinance does not allow the installation of a temporary site, prompting Verizon to look for other locations for a new site.

While discussions are underway with potential landlords, Verizon has not yet identified a timeline to complete the project going forward.

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Boats docked at Lake Anne Plaza in Reston (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Some residents are complaining about spotty and slow cell phone service in the Lake Anne area of Reston.

The issue may be related to the removal of a cell phone telecommunications facility on the old Lake Anne Fellowship House, which is slated for demolition, according to Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn.

Local officials are trying to find a short-term solution and ultimately a spot for a long-term antenna location.

“I understand this is a frustrating situation and my office is doing what we can to help facilitate a quick resolution,” Alcorn wrote in a statement.

Verizon and AT&T did not immediately return requests for comment from FFXnow.

Finding a spot for antennas has been a tough sell in the area.

Earlier this year, concerns about incompatibility with the area prompted Site Link Wireless to withdraw a plan for six antenna on the roof of Heron House, a 15-story condominium building at the center of Lake Anne Village Center.

The facility at Lake Anne Fellowship House was used by Verizon Wireless and other providers. A spokesperson for T-Mobile said the company had not flagged any issues with service in the area.

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Morning Notes

A busy bee in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A Few Sidelined Metro Trains Return Today — “Metro has previously said riders will first see the trains on the Green and Yellow lines. The transit agency says once they’ve established a ‘steady rhythm of inspections and consistently delivered eight trains for daily service,’ they will increase service on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines to every 15 minutes” [DCist]

D.C. Woman Believed to Be New Victim of Alleged Serial Killer — “A spokesperson with the Metropolitan Police Department told WTOP that ‘shopping cart killer‘ suspect Anthony Eugene Robinson is a person of interest in the death of Sonya Champ…found by police around 11:30 a.m. Sept. 7, 2021.” [Patch]

Dulles Toll Road May Phase Out Coins — “MWAA officials say the shift to an all-electronic system will reduce emissions from vehicles idling at the toll plaza. The shift to all-electronic tolling, expected to take place in January, comes as MWAA is considering the first toll increase for Dulles Toll Road users since 2019.” [The Washington Post]

School Board Vote on Student Phone Use Tonight — “Under a proposed revision to the ‘Student Rights and Responsibilities’ handbook, cellphone use for most students would be prohibited during all classes as well as visits to the bathrooms and locker rooms…A  vote on the handbook for next year is scheduled for Thursday night.” [WTOP]

West Springfield Baseball Player Goes Viral — Eric Fila, a catcher for West Springfield High School, shook hands with the home plate umpire after his team lost to Herndon High School in the 10th inning of a June 7 game in the Virginia state tournament quarterfinals. Video of the gesture was posted on Twitter and went viral, even airing during a Phillies-Brewers broadcast. [The Washington Post]

Virtual Mental Health Services Available for Students — “Through August 5, the FCPS Office of Intervention and Prevention Services will offer virtual mental wellness consultations. Parents and students can schedule a 45-minute consultation with a school psychologist or school social worker by phone or videoconference.” [FCPS]

McLean Community Center Reschedules Fourth of July — The center’s annual Independence Day celebration will now take place at Langley High School from 6:30-10:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 2. Vienna and Fairfax City have also moved events off of July 4 due to staffing shortages at the company that conducts their fireworks shows. [MCC/Twitter]

Inside Tysons Corner Center’s Princess Diana Exhibit — “Princess Diana: Accredited Access Exhibit takes a look at Diana’s life as a royal, seen through the eyes of [royal photographer Anwar] Hussein. His work — including never-before-seen photographs of the princess — is presented next to photos taken by his sons Samir and Zak, who both work as royal photographers today.” [Washington City Paper]

It’s Thursday — Possible light rain in the morning and overnight. High of 86 and low of 71. Sunrise at 5:44 am and sunset at 8:38 pm. [Weather.gov]

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A closeup of an iPhone screen (via Adrien/Unsplash)

After roughly a decade of relative freedom, Fairfax County Public Schools is sending cellphones back into students’ backpacks.

The Fairfax County School Board is considering restricting the use of personal phones during class for all students as part of several proposed revisions to its Students Rights & Responsibilities handbook, which sets standards for student behavior and discipline.

As proposed during a work session on April 26, the extent of the ban would vary depending on the grade level. Elementary and middle school students would only be allowed to use cellphones before and after the school day, while high schoolers can take them out during lunch and periods between classes.

The revised regulation says teachers could still let students use phones for instructional activities “where they are the most appropriate tool,” but in most cases, the school-issued laptops that most students receive should be adequate.

FCPS has already started to limit phone use in Herndon schools, and Dranesville District School Board Representative Elaine Tholen said at the work session that the changes have had positive results, WTOP reported last week.

The proposed changes mark a shift away from FCPS’ current policy, which embraces technology as a way of “creating a 21st century learning environment” and permits students to use their personal devices to access the internet and work with classmates.

FCPS introduced its Bring Your Own Device policy about a decade ago, as the system started to phase in the school-issued laptops. The initiative, which notes that the use of phones for “personal or recreational purposes” should be minimized, won FCPS a Governor’s Technology Award in 2013.

Since then, some schools across the country have moved to ban phones in classrooms in response to concerns about distractions and excessive screentime, but with 95% of teenagers having access to a smartphone, others have argued that a more effective approach is to set clear guidelines and teach students how to use technology responsibly. Safety and health concerns are also sometimes cited as reasons to allow phones.

What do you think of the proposed changes to FCPS’ phone policy? Should schools accept cellphones as an integral part of many kids’ lives and even a potential teaching tool, or are they just a distraction?

Photo via Adrien/Unsplash

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Herndon High School sign (via FCPS)

In an effort to curb cell phone use, Herndon High School is implementing a school-wide ban on cell phone and headphone use in all classes.

The policy went into effect yesterday (Monday) after what Principal Liz Noto called an “all time high” of student phone use.

Noto offered an update to the school community about the policy change over spring break.

Students will still be able to use their phone during lunch time and passing times, according to the letter. Once class begins, phones must be turned off and put away.

The school outlined a number of exceptions to the rule, including using phones to monitor medical conditions and specific documented learning needs.

Teachers can also provide students with a five-minute phone break during class and use cell phones for specific learning activities.

Here’s more from Noto’s update:

We want you to know that we value your communication with your child. If you need to urgently get in touch with your child and waiting for the end of the class period or for a five-minute cell phone break during class will not suffice, please call the main office at 703-810-2200 and we will help you reach your student.

Teachers will be following through on this new policy very diligently. It is our priority to engage you student in learning and this is a major step toward that goal. Please help reiterate the importance of this new policy with your student. Thank you for your continued support.

FCPS was not immediately available for comment on the policy, but the school system does let students use their personal devices to access the Internet and collaborate with other students during the day, according to its technology policy.

Phones can be pulled out if teachers allow it.

The policy changed in 2011 when cell phones had to be out of sight at all times.

The change comes as counties across the state embrace the potential advantages of cell phone use in academic settings. Suffolk County, for example, encourages students to use cell phones to access information online and play subject-related games.

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