New cell tower on Bastille under construction

By John Finefrock
Staff Writer

An AT&T cellphone tower is currently under construction on Bastille Drive, according to people involved with the project.

Late last year, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners approved a Board Conditional Use Permit for the new tower construction.

Justin Causey, land use planner for Md7, a consulting firm that handles everything up until construction for cellphone towers and was contracted for the beginning part of this project, told The SUN in November 2019 that he thought that construction on the tower would start in January or February and take about a month to complete.

On May 5, Causey provided an update to The SUN.

“AT&T has had some trouble with the power coordination through the State, but everything has been solved and the project is moving forward,” Causey wrote.

On Tuesday, Causey provided an additional update and wrote, “Just got an update form [sic] the construction team. The construction has already begun and the tower should start going up in the next few weeks.”

Asked how long construction will take, Causey replied, “Most likely will be on air in a couple months. This is very dependent on optimization and other factors that go into the final construction.”

According to the application submitted to the county, the tower is proposed to be 90 feet tall, and the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners granted a variance from the normal commercial zone height limit of 40 feet above grade.

Causey noted that former Archuleta County Planning Manager John Shepard suggested a higher tower with co-location opportunities to reduce the total number of towers in the county.

In addition to boosting AT&T cell coverage in the area (other cell providers have the option to co-locate equipment on the tower), it will also house equipment for the FirstNet Emergency Responders Network, a first for Archuleta County.

Causey explained to The SUN late last year that the FirstNet equipment allows emergency first responders to communicate on an entirely separate bandwidth from what regular cellphones use, so communication is perpetually intact for emergency personnel, even if the tower is bogged down with a high call volume.

“The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] released this bandwidth that only emergency responders can operate on. So, the equipment that we put up for FirstNet is solely going to be used by first responders,” Causey said. “They have a separate bandwidth that only first responders would have the equipment to operate within that, so it doesn’t have to fight for that coverage … They’ll have their own network that they’re operating on.”

AT&T was awarded the multi-billion dollar contract to build and maintain FirstNet in 2017 and is spending about $40 billion on the project.

FirstNet was proposed by the federal 911 Commission over a decade ago, following first responder communication failures after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Archuleta County Undersheriff Derek Woodman highlighted some of the other benefits of FirstNet in a phone call last year.

“If we have an event that there is no cell coverage, say we have a big fire in an isolated area and we need cell coverage up there, they are mandated to provide, within 14 hours of the call, provide a cell tower on wheels, a portable cell tower … That’s part of the federal mandate and they have to abide by it,” explained Woodman.

Woodman also explained that a Push-To-Talk feature of FirstNet allows emergency personnel to communicate even with limited to no cellphone coverage.

“It acts more like a walkie-talkie than it does a cellphone,” Causey said of Push-To-Talk in a phone call, noting that it doesn’t need sustained coverage to keep a communication channel open.

The AT&T tower is expected to be operational in the upcoming months.

This story was posted on July 29, 2020.