Business & Economy

Planned FirstNet towers stumble this year, but officials confident in AT&T

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Clay Purvis of the Vermont Public Service Department speaks at a 2017 connectivity summit at Dover’s Town Hall. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

Hardwick residents turned out in opposition when AT&T this fall proposed building a cell tower on Buffalo Mountain as part of its statewide contract with FirstNet, a federal program to expand coverage for first responders. 

The telecommunications titan decided to scrap its plans Dec. 9 as a result.

The nixed Hardwick build is one of several new tower proposals this year the company has either canceled or let lapse.

Of the eight new towers AT&T has proposed to the state Public Utility Commission since January as part of its FirstNet contract, only one has been approved.

Cases for three of those towers are still pending before the commission. But proposals for the four remaining towers have either stalled or have been formally withdrawn. 

“We consistently look for ways to improve our network for customers and first responders, and we have been actively working with public officials and our vendors to add additional wireless coverage and capacity in the area,” company spokesperson Jim Kimberly said. “We are happy with our progress thus far and have added nearly half of our planned FirstNet sites this year.”

In 2017, the state agreed to let AT&T build Vermont’s portion of the FirstNet network, a nationwide project, and is supposed to bring 36 new tower sites online by the end of 2022. The company says it is using $25 million in federal funds for the effort, as well as its own money.

Despite the rough spells with proposals this year, officials are confident AT&T will meet the deadline.

Nineteen of the 36 committed sites have been activated so far, said Terry LaValley, radio technology services director for the Department of Public Safety, who oversees FirstNet work in the state. Fourteen of those sites were handled by AT&T directly, while five were built by a partner company, Great North Woods Wireless. The partner company is responsible for one more tower.

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“They’re currently working on those remaining sites,” LaValley said, adding, “I think we’re doing OK.”

Records from the Public Utility Commission indicate that AT&T has made 12 proposals this year explicitly described as FirstNet projects.

The plans have included sites in Chelsea, Derby, East Montpelier, Granville, Hancock, Hardwick, Mendon, Middlebury, Springfield, St. Johnsbury, Stockbridge and Thetford. Four of the proposals would modify or house new equipment on existing towers. Each was approved with relatively little fanfare, records show. Tower proposals in Chelsea, Thetford and Stockbridge have stalled out this year.

AT&T filed notice April 28 of plans to build a 190-foot tower on Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford. The tower would have been equipped with a lightning rod extending its height to 195 feet, and it would have been surrounded by a 50-foot-by-50-foot fenced compound. 

The project was expected to result in about 3 acres of total earth disturbance, according to the company.

In May, town resident Kevin Llewellyn submitted public comments expressing “strong opposition” to the would-be tower. 

“I believe it will be an eyesore to our community, and because this tower will impact my personal view of the surrounding hills and nature from my property porch,” Llewellyn wrote. 

He pointed out that the tower would violate Thetford’s zoning policies on cell tower height by 100 feet, and he claimed that the tower — combined with the elevated land it would sit on — would reach 1,240 feet, taller than the local hills. 

“That means this tower will be the single focal point for our entire community — this is NOT the image we want for our future,” he wrote.

At the end of July, the town selectboard and planning commission submitted public comments requesting the state retain experts on the town’s behalf to evaluate proposed sites. 

The case was closed Oct. 27 after a 180-day window to file a petition passed, and AT&T hasn’t filed any other proposals or notices for FirstNet projects in Thetford, records show. However, a September news release from the company’s Vermont law firm says AT&T had been looking at two alternative sites in the town.

On April 30, the company filed notice about plans to stand up a 199-foot tower on Riverside Drive in Chelsea, along with a 50-foot-by-50-foot surrounding compound. 

That case was closed Oct. 29 without further developments filed after the 180-day window passed. In September, the Valley News reported that “some residents and town officials raised concerns about the tower’s environmental impact and whether it would adequately provide service to the whole town.” An AT&T rep told the newspaper then that the company was looking at several possible sites for the Chelsea tower.

AT&T filed notice of a proposed a 180-foot tower in Stockbridge, off state Route 100, on May 1. During the summer it drew several opposing public comments.

“We are now faced with the very real prospect that our home life will be disrupted by the construction of the cell tower road directly behind our property in the Green Mountain National Forest,” wrote resident Regina Toolin on June 26. 

Toolin wrote that the Covid-19 pandemic had complicated residents’ ability to discuss the proposal and wrote that “a number of impacted landowners and residents never received the original 60-day Advance Notice” and other notifications. Changes were also made to the proposal without formal notification, she said. 

Another landowner, Bev Adams, wrote June 29 that she hadn’t received any information about plans to change a proposed access road. A third, Joseph Havelka, wrote June 30 that he was sent notice of a balloon test to evaluate the tower’s visual impact after the launch had already occurred.

By Oct. 30 the commission case was closed, with no further filing.

LaValley, the Public Safety radio services director, said because of the extensive processes new cell tower proposals have to go through, plans may fall through or stretch on. 

AT&T’s spotty success rate for proposed towers is not unusual, LaValley said. “I think that’s fairly common in the state. There are proposals for towers that never get built.”

With the FirstNet sites, he said, planners will often draw up dozens of potential sites that can meet cell coverage needs. But if residents or others have concerns about sites, planners have to go down the list until they find a spot that strikes a balance, he said.

LaValley said builders file notices about potential sites out of due diligence. “A lot of times you don’t (follow through with the sites), and the applications are withdrawn,” he said.

In cases like Hardwick, aesthetics and the value of the natural environment are often pitted against policy goals. Clay Purvis, telecoms czar for the Department of Public Service, acknowledged this tension.

“Cell siting in Vermont has always been, I think, a local concern for many Vermont communities,” Purvis said. “So this is nothing new. And I do think AT&T — at least compared to other cell carriers — really tries to listen and take into account the concerns of local communities.”

He cited a decision in Grand Isle to move a proposed site after locals took issue with the plan.

“Given how much people want this service, I do think it’s a little frustrating,” he said. “But it’s still fairly common and something that I think we’ve seen for a long time in Vermont.”

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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