Following expressions of local opposition to a 195-foot communication tower proposed by AT&T for a parcel of state land within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, representatives from the Idaho Department of Lands will meet with those from Custer Telephone Cooperative on Friday to discuss possible alternatives to improve emergency communications in the area.
One is sharing an existing 100-foot tower owned by Custer Telephone close to the proposed site.
Two weeks ago, a Department of Lands spokeswoman told the Idaho Mountain Express that the department had encouraged the two companies to explore the possibility of co-locating on the existing tower. However, she said, according to AT&T, the parties “could not agree to terms” and therefore AT&T filed its application for the taller tower.
In an interview Thursday, Custer Telephone CEO and General Manager Dennis Thornock said that’s not exactly true. According to Thornock, AT&T contacted Custer about co-locating on a new 195-foot tower, but said it wasn’t interested in utilizing the existing tower.
“They felt that that height would not meet their needs,” Thornock said.
Custer then contacted nearby residents, with whom they had consulted when the 100-foot-tower was built in 2013, about the possibility of a 195-foot tower going up near that site. When the reaction was negative, Custer informed AT&T that it wasn’t interested in cooperating on building a new tower, Thornock said.
Thornock doubted that AT&T deliberately provided false information about those discussions, and he presumes there was some misunderstanding between AT&T and the Department of Lands.
AT&T could not be reached for comment by press deadline Thursday.
Thornock said signal propagation studies carried out before Custer installed the existing cell tower just west of the Sawtooth Hatchery showed that a taller tower there wouldn’t help reach sites farther up the valley, such as Alturas Lake and Galena Summit. However, he said several small towers could.
The company’s studies showed that a short, inconspicuous tower close to Redfish Lake would also work to transmit signals from that area, Thornock told the Express.
He intends to provide information on those options to the Department of Lands during their meeting at the department office in Boise on Friday.
“Basically, it’s to start a dialogue,” Thornock said. “We support First Net and first responders, but we don’t support a 195-foot tower in the SNRA. We definitely think there are a lot of options that AT&T needs to explore other than a 195-foot tower at that site. We believe they should co-locate with us and build smaller towers.”
AT&T spokeswoman Amanda Watson said two weeks ago that the proposed site will provide first responder coverage across Redfish Lake in the case of emergencies such as drowning, wildfire and avalanches. It would also provide additional coverage and capacity for regular cell phone users.
In an email Monday, Department of Lands spokeswoman Sharla Arledge said the leasing process continues to move forward, but confirmed that department Director Dustin Miller is working with staff and others to analyze the concerns some have expressed and that he is gathering information from FirstNet and AT&T.
Both Watson and Arledge said the process is not dependent on a specific schedule.