Guest Columnist

Allamakee County needs communications towers

A 75-foot communications tower is prepared at job site in rural Alburnett in 2015. (Gazette Archives)
A 75-foot communications tower is prepared at job site in rural Alburnett in 2015. (Gazette Archives)

There has been a great deal of back and forth in the last year-and-a-half regarding construction of communication towers in Allamakee County, with one proposed tower near New Albin being the center of some debate.

We’d like to set the record straight and make sure that the public fully understands what’s at stake.

The cell site near New Albin is part of a nationwide federal initiative called FirstNet. FirstNet is a mobile communications network being built specifically to prioritize emergency services/first responders communications in emergency situations. My company, NEIT (Northeast Iowa Telephone Company) is a rural network partner for AT&T, and thereby FirstNet, and is responsible for managing construction.

Legislation has been proposed to streamline the process for getting cell sites like the one near New Albin approved. Specifically, it applies to only unincorporated portions of a county and does not apply to property zoned single-family residential use or within a previously designated area of historical significance. It applies only to communications towers that will host FirstNet equipment. In this regard, the state of Iowa has approved a coverage map for FirstNet, and the goal of AT&T and NEIT is to provide the required coverage with as few newly constructed towers as is reasonably possible.

The process that NEIT followed with respect to the New Albin tower began with evaluations of coverage needs. The coverage needs of the FirstNet network are expansive and the geography of the New Albin area makes it difficult to meet those needs. NEIT works with RF Engineers and tower compliance consultants to determine locations that meet required coverage needs. After determining options for collocation on existing towers do not satisfy coverage requirements, sites for new tower construction are considered.

NEIT evaluated numerous properties in the New Albin area. Proposed sites need to have adequate vehicle access, reasonable access to utilities, be suitable for construction, and have a willing landowner to host the tower. After any such sites are identified, the full approval process begins, which includes review by the FAA, the FCC, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office, the Iowa DNR and in this case, 28 Native American tribes.

The final proposed site was the only site that passed all governmental approvals.

During the process for permit approval from the county, NEIT offered a compromise to lower the height of the tower so that its top would not have lights and would be below the tree line out of the visibility of a concerned neighbor. But that was still not acceptable to the neighbor. Ultimately, a 3-2 vote by the Allamakee County Board of Adjustments stopped construction of the proposed tower. In effect, one person’s opinion denied first responders and Iowans the benefits of FirstNet simply because they decided they didn’t want a cell site nearby. That hardly seems fair or desirable to the greater community.

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I live, work and play in Northeast Iowa, in part due to the scenic beauty and recreational opportunities it offers. However, I also believe communication needs are critical for the area. Allamakee County is not known for its cellular and internet service availability. It is likely the most difficult county in the state to provide wireless coverage due to its topography. To compound this problem, the county has implemented an ordinance that restricts tower construction for non-governmental networks in over 75 percent of Allamakee County. When you also consider that towers cannot be constructed in flood plains it eliminates over 82 percent of the county. Please consider what the FirstNet network will offer Allamakee County, as well as the rest of the nation. This network is being built for law enforcement, first responders, emergency service personnel and volunteers that serve us every day. This network provides an expressway so those users always have access to mobile voice and data and don’t take a back seat on the network to users streaming a movie or playing a game.

This network will allow data speeds and access for dispatch to view livestreaming video of situations officers are dealing with. It will allow live transfer of data from equipment in an ambulance to the emergency room so staff is better prepared for the patient to arrive. It also will allow so much more, including things we cannot imagine yet.

Allamakee County Emergency Management, the sheriff’s department, volunteer firefighters, ambulance services, state troopers, the state fire marshal, the DNR, the FBI and many others will all benefit from the FirstNet network. That level of safety and security for local residents should be the overriding priority.

• Steve Hanson of rural Monona is NEIT’s director of business development.

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