It’s back to the drawing board for the city of Washburn and Bayfield County after communications provider Verizon withdrew from an agreement to construct a new 199-foot tall communications tower located near Woodland Drive in the city of Washburn.
The new tower would have provided enhanced cellular for area residents and public safety communications for Bayfield County.
Members of the Bayfield County Board were told about the Verizon action at last Tuesday’s County Board session.
“Over the last year or so, the city and county have talked and we came to the conclusion that a tower up on top of the hill here in Washburn was the best decision to make as far as having a single tower for both law enforcement communications as well as cellular antennas,” said Bayfield County Administrator Mark Abeles Allison. “We felt we had an initial agreement with Verizon and then early this year they noted that their legal documents had changed form and so we needed to renegotiate that agreement.”
Abeles-Allison said the county and city once more thought they had the agreement locked down.
“Then just a week before last, Verizon let us know construction plans had been put on hold and that they could not guarantee that construction this year or next year — it could be two years out,’ he said.
Abeles Allison said while Verizon did not completely eliminate the possibility of eventually constructing a tower, the county’s pressing need to improve law enforcement and emergency services radio coverage made that delay problematic.
According to a summary provided by Bayfield County, the county uses their emergency services radio system “almost continuously” on a daily basis.
“All law enforcement, fire and ambulance service radio communications as well as emergency responder paging notification depend upon that system,” the summary said.
There are inadequacies in the current system. These inadequacies are primarily a lack of radio coverage in outlying areas of Bayfield County as well as in the city of Washburn. These gaps in radio coverage have been exacerbated by a 2013 FCC requirement to operate on VHF "narrow band.”
“There are two fundamental problems with the existing system,” the summary continued. “They are due both to system design and tower height in relationship to topography.”
The summary explained that emergency service radio communications originate at a ‘control station’ located at the Bayfield County annex. The tower at the county annex ‘talks’ to all radio repeaters in Bayfield County. Every communication from the Bayfield County dispatch center must broadcast to a selected repeater tower, then rebroadcast from that selected repeater to emergency responders or law enforcement units. The annex control station does not directly communicate with users in the field including the city of Washburn. The control station must broadcast to a repeater tower located on Maple Hill several miles from Washburn. The Maple Hill repeater broadcasts to Washburn.
“Because of topography, the radio signal from Maple Hill back to Washburn is significantly hampered. The effect is very noticeable to those emergency responders who rely on portable radios and pagers,” the summary said.
In addition, no other repeater towers located in Bayfield County can provide coverage to the city of Washburn.
The report said the other fundamental issue is the control station must also be able to transmit to all other repeater towers in Bayfield County. The control station has difficulty transmitting to the Cable, Iron River and Port Wing repeater towers. That affects emergency responders on most of the South Shore of Lake Superior along with the townships of Cable, Namekagon, Iron River, Tripp and Hughes.
“This issue is due to the marginal height of the annex control station tower. That lack of height compromises the radio signal from control station to repeaters,” the summary said.
There is also another separate problem for the city of Washburn, which is a signal problem from the repeater at Maple Hill to end-users.
The proposed Woodland Avenue tower project would have fixed the known radio coverage issues, moving the control station to that location. With a an antenna nearly 180 feet higher than the current facility, engineering studies indicated that the increased height would have resulted in greatly improved signals to outlying repeaters. A new repeater attached to the project would also have solved radio problems for the city of Washburn, and in addition a new tower would have been used by Verizon to dramatically improve cell phone coverage in the Washburn area.
“In this part of the county there had been a definite need for improving cellular communications,” said Abeles-Allison.
Abeles Allison said the need to improve emergency services and law enforcement communications was very real.
“We don’t have solid communications throughout the county; we use a combination of both cell phones and radios, but there are areas of the county that don’t have reliable communication, which is a major concern,” he said.
Abeles Allison said there had been concerns about the construction of the tower in the Woodland Avenue neighborhood.
“But the long-tern thought was that this was going to be a benefit to both Washburn and Bayfield County as a whole.”
The prospect of constructing the tower in the primarily residential area of Washburn caused considerable controversy, as some residents fought hard against the agreement to lease the land for the proposed tower and to approve a conditional use permit to Bayfield County for the construction.
“I would like to say it’s been the most gut-wrenching decision,” said Councilor Mary Nowakowski, who voted in favor of the tower. “In a perfect world none of us would like to make this decision.”
Despite the second failure of the tower to reach reality, Abeles Allison said the county would continue its efforts to improve communications.
Just because this has fallen through, it doesn’t mean that we are not still pursuing other options,” Abeles-Allison said.
Abeles-Allison said he and others involved in the project were disappointed by the Verizon action, but said the city and county would go forward with the project one way or the other.
“Verizon was the one company to express willingness to consider construction,” he said. “If that is not an option, then we have said the communications, both emergency and law enforcement are very important to the county as a whole and so that is something we are investigating.
Those options could include building the tower on their own, which Abeles-Allison admitted could be a very expensive proposition.
“The equipment we need — a building on the ground, a generator — all that stuff could be $400,000. The cost of a tower could double that price,” he said. “It’s an expensive proposition. You could easily be looking at $800,000 plus.”