Cellphone towers in Glenwood Canyon pose a challenge
Developer with approvals for a wireless towers accuses railroad of skirting law to build competing network
A developer with an unfinished project to build cellphone towers in Glenwood Canyon is concerned that other players in the industry are trying to create additional wireless networks there that could lead to a proliferation of towers and antennas, threatening the canyon’s environmental and historic integrity.
Canyon Summits, a Massachusetts-based company formed to develop and manage wireless facilities in Glenwood Canyon, first secured leases from the White River National Forest and the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2012 to build cellphone towers on those agencies’ property at the four rest areas off of Interstate 70 as it threads its way through the canyon of the Colorado River.
Among the final pieces of the federal interstate highway system to be completed, the canyon is also one of the most significant wireless-coverage gaps on the map. One of Canyon Summits’ sites, at Hanging Lake, was completed in 2014 but has since sat inoperable, incorporating two 40-foot “stealth monopoles” designed to look like pine trees perched on a cliff overlooking the parking area.
There’s also an earth-bermed concrete shelter dug into the hillside screened by a retaining wall hosting six empty equipment rooms and a backup generator.
The rest of the project would see three more sets of screened towers and equipment sheds designed to be minimally intrusive and reusing some existing CDOT structures at the Grizzly, No Name and Bair Ranch rest areas. The project also includes two small-cell sites deployed in zones in the canyon where signals from the four “macrosites” can’t reach.
Building out the rest of the network, however, has not materialized. No major carriers have signed on to lease Canyon Summits’ infrastructure, which the developers concede has a premium price. At least one other cellular developer has proposed a network of small-cell sites lining the highway decks but was turned down by the U.S. Forest Service in 2019.
Canyon Summits secured additional investment in mid-2020 and was preparing to go ahead with construction, believing the carriers would sign on to the finished product, but those plans were put on hold when engineers working for the company observed what appeared to be new cellphone poles going up along the railroad right of way, which also runs through the canyon.
FCC complaint calls for investigation into railroad’s plans
Canyon Summits in February filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission asserting that Union Pacific Railroad, which controls the tracks through the canyon, is in the midst of installing antennas, new and modified towers, and equipment sheds that will support commercial wireless service.
The complaint says the facilities along the tracks should be required to undergo a review mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act to ensure that undertakings involving the federal government — including communications poles licensed by the FCC — do not adversely impact sites that are either listed or could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Glenwood Canyon since 2012 has been deemed eligible for historic designation as a linear historic district because of the significant cultural and engineering achievement of constructing an interstate through the canyon.
Completed in 1992 — at a cost of $490 million after 12 years of construction following more than a dozen years of debate — the 12-mile stretch was required to be “so designed that, to the fullest extent, the wonders of human engineering will be tastefully blended with the wonders of nature,” according to the 1968 resolution passed by the Colorado General Assembly establishing a public advisory commission to provide input on the project. The creation of the commission itself was a significant step in the history of blending environmentalism and tourism-based commerce.
“Overburdening the canyon with unsightly towers and related wireless network infrastructure is in conflict with the environmental ideals that underpin the overall management and stewardship of the corridor,” says the complaint letter, which requests that the commission require what’s known as a Section 106 review.
A representative from Union Pacific issued a statement noting that the railroad has installed “communication poles” along its right of way in the canyon associated with a system known as Positive Train Control (PTC), which is designed to automatically control train speed and safety. The statement acknowledged that some of the poles host commercial cellular antennas, adding, “however, no additional sites have been constructed nor are any currently planned specifically for that purpose.”
According to Union Pacific’s website, cellular technology and antennas are component parts of the federally mandated PTC system.
The railroad’s statement says it “[intends] to make additional operational use of the existing poles, including cellular connectivity for employee communications, dispatching, and other railroad applications, but we do not yet have cellular capability in Glenwood Canyon.”
Railroad representative Elizabeth Graham declined to answer further questions about whether Union Pacific, should it achieve cellular coverage through the canyon, also intends to allow commercial wireless carriers to use the cellular antennas. The statement says that the installation related to PTC “was completed in consultation with the federal government,” but it does not specify what agencies were involved in the consultation.
Graham also declined to respond to the FCC complaint letter, saying Union Pacific would “provide a formal response when it is appropriate to do so.”
According to Canyon Summits’ complaint, the railroad has entered into a contract with Florida-based SBA Communications, a developer of cellphone towers, to install an antenna network in the canyon using existing and new towers.
The complaint cites 10 locations where Canyon Summits representatives have observed towers running through the canyon that host commercial-grade cellular antennas, each spaced about a mile to a mile and a half apart. The towers, according to the FCC complaint, range from 30 to 70 feet tall and typically feature two antenna panels, each about 4 feet tall.
“These are wideband antennas designed to accommodate multiple carriers and multiple frequencies,” said Steve Sanders, a radio-frequency engineer working with Canyon Summits. Using a drone, he has identified what he believes to be a total of 13 distributed antenna system (DAS) nodes on the Union Pacific tracks in the canyon.
Canyon Summits principals said that since becoming aware of the antennas in late summer, they have gleaned intelligence from contacts within the wireless facilities world on the true purpose of the antennas.
“Upon information and belief, SBA has entered into a lease agreement with [United Pacific] to develop and construct this [DAS] network and thereafter sublease to third-party commercial wireless network operations (i.e., national wireless carriers),” says the FCC complaint. “Construction has not followed the Section 106 review required by the National Programmatic Agreement [for communications tower development related to the National Historic Preservation Act] that ensures the aesthetic and historic integrity of areas like the canyon. It appears that construction of the [United Pacific] DAS network violates the requirements of the agreement.”
An SBA spokesperson declined comment on Canyon Summits’ complaint and referred questions back to Union Pacific.
The letter acknowledges that Union Pacific is likely to claim that the towers and equipment in question “relate to its PTC operations and are otherwise exempt from federal regulatory oversight.” Collocating new equipment on existing towers is often exempt, as long as the collation does not substantially increase the tower’s size. However, due to the nature of the expansion and the setting of the canyon, the complaint asserts that exemptions from a Section 106 review do not apply.
The complaint asks the FCC to “investigate the specifics of all construction” to determine whether it is “simply a PTC upgrade” or “whether there are in fact substantial increases … indicating that the true intent of this construction is to develop a new network for commercial purposes.” The complaint calls on the FCC to require the railroad and SBA to undergo a Section 106 review and asks that the matter be publicly noticed.
Canyon Summits has yet to receive a formal response from the FCC — which is not required to reply within a set time frame — but a Canyon Summits representative said it expected to hear something back within a month.
Frustration and shortcomings
If, in fact, the railroad and a third-party developer are working on a wireless network in the canyon, it would follow a series of attempts by entities in the wireless-telecommunications world to pursue an alternative to the network proposed by Canyon Summits.
In 2019, the Forest Service rejected a proposal from another wireless technology developer, Texas-based Crown Castle, that sought to install cellular communications facilities in the canyon. A letter dated March 27, 2019, from White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams to a Crown Castle representative says that, due to the existing agreement with Canyon Summits, “permitting another company to construct additional facilities to provide an almost identical service would be unnecessarily redundant.”
The letter further noted “a number of environmental factors” in play when considering any additional infrastructure in the canyon.
“The area is visually and culturally sensitive so it is undesirable to allow any unnecessary development,” the letter says. “Also, the Colorado River as it flows through Glenwood Canyon is eligible for inclusion as a designated Recreation River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, bringing an additional level of care and concern for the corridor.”
Fitzwilliams said last week that the desire for cellular service in Glenwood Canyon and the difficulty in achieving it make for a unique case.
Public-safety agencies have long wanted cellular connectivity in the canyon in order to provide better public access to emergency services and a quicker response time in light of the fact that millions of cars and an estimated 130,000 recreational visitors come through the canyon each year.
Fitzwilliams noted that during last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire, a lot of people said, “I thought we were getting cellphone coverage in the canyon.”
The Forest Service regularly permits facilities such as telecommunications towers on its property, Fitzwilliams said.
“We issue permits on public lands to provide a public service,” he said.
But more than a half-dozen years have passed since the Hanging Lake facility was built, and there is still no cellphone service.
“Local emergency service providers, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Forest Service are becoming increasingly frustrated over the lack of carrier service,” says a letter that Fitzwilliams sent Dec. 19, 2019, to representatives of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. “I respectfully ask for your help in understanding when this important service will be available or what barriers prevent this from happening.”
Only AT&T responded in writing to the letter, according to Forest Service officials. A letter from AT&T Colorado president Roberta Robinette and dated Jan. 17, 2020, notes the challenges associated with deploying cellular connectivity in the canyon.
“Much like when Interstate 70 was reengineered through the canyon in the 1980s and ’90s to better connect Coloradans by roadway, our network and engineering teams are working to find the best and most efficient means to do the same for wireless connectivity,” the letter says, adding that doing so “will only be possible with the support of local partners.
AT&T reviewed Canyon Summits’ proposal, “however, the plan fell far short of our objectives,” says the letter, which defines AT&T’s criteria as providing service in as many areas of the canyon as possible, laying the technological foundation for 5G and relying on “a reasonable cost structure.”
The letter says that the Canyon Summits plan “did not offer the coverage enhancement AT&T sought” and “will not provide a path for future technology upgrades including laying the foundation for 5G.”
“Compounding these shortcomings, the Canyon Summits plan initial costs were five times higher than alternative proposals. They have since reduced initial costs but remain twice as high as other, superior network solutions,” the letter says. “What’s more, their ongoing maintenance proposal is three times higher.”
Robinette states that while Canyon Summits falls short, “there is an alternative plan that will provide connectivity in the scope and scale that Glenwood Canyon deserves.”
The letter does not offer any details on that alternative plan, but Robinette says she “will reach out to you soon to discuss how the Forest Service can help.”
According to Fitzwilliams, that follow-up never came. An AT&T spokesperson offered a brief statement in response to a request for comment on Robinette’s letter.
“We are looking forward to bringing additional connectivity to Glenwood Canyon, “ the spokesperson said in an email. “We hope to share additional information soon.”
Fitzwilliams said he is aware of Canyon Summits’ claims regarding commercial cellular development on the Union Pacific right of way, but anything that happens on the railroad right of way is outside of the Forest Service’s jurisdiction.
“We don’t deal with the railroad right of way,” Fitzwilliams said. “Some think that I should, but I am going to stay in my lane.”
White River National Forest public information officer David Boyd said in an email that railroads “can perform work and add infrastructure within the scope of rights that were granted in their statutory right of way without needing a permit from us under the 1875 Railroad Right of Way Act.”
Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service wants to continue working with Canyon Summits to exhaust all options to realize the purpose of the project already installed on national forest lands, and the agency is willing to look at modifying the existing approval if that might get carriers on board.
But, Fitzwilliams said, the Forest Service’s timetable is not indefinite.
“We issued a permit to have cellphone service in the canyon, and we need to get there,” he said. “We are not at a point yet where we are going to say the drop-dead date is here,” but that day may come if progress isn’t made.
Costs of doing business
Mike Matthews and Steve Kotfila, principals of Canyon Summits, acknowledge that the lease fees they are asking of the carriers are higher than normal, but that such expense “is a fact of life when constructing in the canyon,” according to a letter that Canyon Summits sent to AT&T after obtaining a copy of Robinette’s communication with the Forest Service.
The roadway through the canyon was historically expensive, by some estimates 40 times more expensive per mile to build than an average interstate. It incorporates highway decks stacked nearly on top of each other in some areas as the road curves around the cliff walls and riverbanks, plus roughly 40 viaducts and bridges, miles of retaining walls and three tunnels.
Canyon Summits first proposed cellphone towers in the canyon in 2006 and underwent a lengthy review with stakeholders, including the Forest Service, CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. Besides providing coverage from Dotsero to Glenwood, criteria of the working group included minimizing the visual impact of the facilities; building in an aesthetically uniform manner that matches other infrastructure in the canyon; minimizing the risk from rockfall and other environmental hazards; and providing backup-power generation for the towers and associated equipment.
All those expectations added up, bringing the Hanging Lake site’s cost above $1.5 million, easily eight times more than a typical comparable site, Matthews said.
“No expense was spared on the road, and we took the same approach,” he said.
The letter to AT&T characterized the fees that Canyon Summits is asking of the carriers to lease the facilities as less than two times the cost of a traditional tower.
“Canyon Summits has passed on a savings to the carriers even though we have been waiting for years for the carriers to deploy the publicly owned frequencies held in their possession,” the letter says.
Seeing a potential competing network ride in without the oversight Canyon Summits underwent is frustrating, Matthews said.
“The reason you could have environmental regulation and reviews is so that no one is surprised,” he said. “That’s what made the road development unique — for the first time in history, [transportation authorities] invited a citizens advisory committee to the table and decided that Glenwood Canyon was important enough to go the extra yard, and here you have a project that is not really out in the open for people to evaluate.”
Matthews added that in terms of laying the foundation for 5G, their agreement with CDOT allows for additional facilities to be added if needed to enhance coverage. However, there are competing interests that call for as little infrastructure in the canyon as possible, both to preserve viewplanes and to ensure safety, due to the constrained nature of the highway.
Carriers will always want the most coverage at the lowest cost, Matthews said, and without regulation to temper that appetite, things can get out of control, he said. He worries that a situation is brewing on the Union Pacific tracks where more antennas will keep going up until one day, “people will look across the road and will say, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”
Matthews said Canyon Summits is trying to reengage the carriers, hoping they will come around to the position that their project is the only feasible solution that balances the competing interests of the canyon. He noted that total project costs have come down recently, to an estimated $7.5 million, due to a more cost-effective partnership with a company hired by CDOT to run fiber-communication lines through the canyon.
Carriers are used to “playing offense” in the industry and dictating the cost and terms when they move into a new area, Matthews said.
“But they come to Glenwood Canyon and it’s like a basketball game with no shot clock,” he said. “It’s hard to make them shoot.”
Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative organization covering the environment in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org
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