AT&T, Sheriff’s Captain Ask Senators to Help Streamline Tower Site Approvals Process
Monday, October 05, 2020 | Comments

Senators focused on rural coverage and what the government can do to help get tower sites built on federal land during a Senate Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet hearing on the progress of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) Sept. 24.

During his testimony to the committee, Captain Tony Harrison of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office in South Dakota praised the service the FirstNet network built by AT&T had provided the county but also described some of the challenges the county faces in remote and rugged areas of the Black Hills.

Harrison said that the AT&T fleet of deployables has helped the county sheriff’s department multiple times when working in more remote areas. For example, last fall, the sheriff’s department was working to find a lost hunter in an area where there was no cell service. AT&T brought in a cell on wheels (CoW), which greatly assisted the effort by providing service in the area, Harrison said.

Harrison also noted that AT&T has built two new towers in the area and are working on two new towers in the county as well. Those two tower sites will be built on federal forest service land and the approvals process for siting towers on federal land has slowed down the progress on that site.

Harrison asked the committee to do whatever it could to help streamline the approvals process for towers planned to be on federal land, arguing that it would help improve rural coverage over the network.

He noted that a few days prior to the hearing he had officers and a detective working on a homicide that occurred at a remote lake in the Black Hills. Those officers were unable to communicate out because the area does not currently have cell coverage.

“But I will tell you that position those officers and detectives were standing in is less than five miles from where a build is planned,” Harrison said. “So, I will tell you, the delay in getting that build done hurt us yesterday, and I’m hoping it won’t hurt us tomorrow.”

Senator Jon Tester of Montana noted his concerns that while cities will have 5G and its accompanying capabilities, rural areas will be left out and not have access.

“As part of the contract, at every phase of deployment, AT&T must deploy rural coverage as part of that,” said FirstNet CEO Edward Parkinson. “I can’t stand here and say every square inch will be covered. No carrier can do that. What we need to do is take advantage of the deployables, hot spots and other things to get first responders the coverage that they need.”

Jason Porter, senior vice president, AT&T FirstNet echoed Harrison’s comments, noting that any streamlining of the tower site approvals process could provide improved rural coverage.

“Northeast Montana is hard to go into because of getting approvals to go into federal lands,” Porter said. “That’s tremendous if we can break down those barriers and get the towers built more quickly for FirstNet and the general public.”

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