Garfield County eyes existing towers for possible broadband improvements
Garfield County commissioners are taking stock of several tower sites around the county and considering their potential for the board’s plans for broadband upgrades.
The Board of County Commissioners has recently been exploring how to overhaul the county’s broadband infrastructure and is conducting a feasibility study of existing infrastructure that could be used to that end.
On the November ballots will be questions from the county and most municipalities asking voters to opt out of a state bill that bars local governments from getting into the telecommunications business. This would be only the first step toward allowing local governments to start moving on new broadband infrastructure.
There are 30 different sites in Garfield County that were initially used as television broadcast translator sites with towers still owned by the county, Commissioner John Martin said.
The county will first have to take a comprehensive look at where these sites are, what kind of structural health they’re in, what tenants have equipment on them and what rates they’re being charged, according to county staff.
Commissioner Martin especially has promoted these towers’ potential to expand the county’s broadband infrastructure while minimizing the use of taxpayer dollars. Broadband has ascended in importance to the same level as a utility, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky has said.
“Does [broadband] need to be hardwired?” asked Martin. “And the answer is 80 percent [of broadband] is not hardwired. It’s line of sight.”
Out of those nearly 30 tower sites, the county is focusing on four existing sites: Lookout Mountain, Sunlight Peak, Harvey Gap and Anvil Points.
These sites were established in the ’70s and ’80s and sit on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands.
Whether they’re used for broadband infrastructure or not, these sites are showing their age, said Frank Coberly, the county’s new facilities director.
He recommended that all these towers be replaced soon, some as soon as the next five years. Some sites would also require repair or replacement of the attached buildings.
The Lookout Mountain tower has failed structural analyses, and at Anvil Points a tower is in such poor condition that personnel can’t climb it anymore.
But replacing these towers would be costly, some running from $250,000 to $500,000 to replace.
However, upgrading these structures would likely attract more users as well, said Coberly.
These tower sites have a mix of users, including KDNK, Rocky Mountain PBS, KJCT out of Grand Junction, Sprint, Rise Broadband, the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and possibly the Garfield County Emergency Contact Authority.
Many broadcasters and other users have been paying rents far below market value for use of these towers, according to county staff. KDNK radio for one, which has broadcasting equipment on Lookout Mountain, pays nothing, according to staff, which proposed raising these rates, in some locations by tens-of-thousands of dollars in total rent.
The biggest proposed jump would be on Lookout Mountain, where current rates brings in a total of about $14,000. Staff is proposing to bring that up to about $74,000.
The county also doesn’t pass through to those users what it pays in rent to the Bureau of Land Management and utility costs, according to staff.
Some of these sites also service state and federal agencies like the Colorado Office of Emergency Management and Federal Aviation Administration. The county could try to tap into those agencies for money to invest in upgrades.
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Roaring Fork Schools volunteers who have already completed a comparable background check through an approved entity would be good to go.