New cell tower will enhance coverage, emergency communication


A new AT&T cellphone tower is set to be constructed on Bastille Drive after the Archuleta County commissioners and the Pagosa Lakes Property Owners Association (PLPOA) both approved the project in recent months.

Construction is expected to begin in January or February and will be completed around March, according to Justin Causey, land use planner for Md7, a consulting firm that “handles everything up until construction” for cellphone towers and is contracted through AT&T.

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

Causey explained that the FirstNet equipment on the tower 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 caller volume.

“The FCC 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,” said Causey. “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 last year 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.

According to the application submitted to the county, the tower is proposed to be 90 feet tall, and the 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 colocation opportunities so as to reduce the total number of towers in the county.

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

“If we have an event that there is no cell coverage, say we have a big fire and 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.

“I am in favor of the new tower and think that it will fill in some holes that we have with AT&T,” said Pagosa Fire Protection District Chief Randy Larson in an email.

Pagosa Springs Town Manager Andrea Phillips also offered her support for the tower.

“I’m excited about additional tower infrastructure being installed in the community. It will help the first response network and also our day to day cellular services,” Phillips wrote in an email.

Causey explained the best service from the tower will be around the Pagosa Lakes area uptown, though it will improve service from uptown to downtown and north to near the Hinsdale County line.

Causey explained that his firm is looking to apply for a building permit near the end of November or early December.

“From there I want to say AT&T is probably going to move on this one pretty fast,” Causey said, noting that construction would start in January or February and will take about a month to complete.