Keith Chambers, operations manager for ComSites West, talked to the Plumas County Planning Commission on Aug. 3 about what his company does, how telecommunication towers work in Plumas County and his concerns about the planning department’s first draft of a telecommunications ordinance.
ComSites West builds and maintains telecommunications sites and leases those facilities to cellular companies, to industry and agencies for two-way radio communications, and for microwave transmissions. ComSites West, which started as a logging corporation, currently operates 70 telecommunication sites in California.
In Plumas County, ComSites West manages the Prospect Peak antennae farm located above Portola. Chambers noted that telecommunications towers transmit wireless and two-way radio signals, but they also serve as conduits for Internet service.
Where broadband cable ends, microwave waves transmit Internet signals to a tower. Internet signals are then relayed from one tower to another to another until that signal can be microwaved back down to broadband cable again.
Chambers said the goal is to link to terrestrial broadband as soon as possible.
Chambers said the company’s existing facility on Prospect Peak transmits all kinds of signals over a very large area. He noted that microwave antennas send signals from Prospect Peak to terrestrial broadband located in Portola.
Chambers said that his company was upgrading its facilities on Prospect Peak because the existing towers couldn’t handle the current load.
Chambers noted that cell phones require a lot of bandwidth. He said ComSites West was moving all three cellular providers on Prospect Peak to one tower and adding extra capacity to that tower.
Chambers said ComSites West was also dedicating a tower just for state communications and was upgrading the transmission system sending power up to the Prospect Peak telecommunications antennae farm. He said that the current transmission system was poorly designed and needed replacement.
He reported that lightning took out the transformers at the top and bottom of the power system last summer and the system needs to be replaced.
Chambers said ComSites West is also working to ensure that snow in the winter doesn’t collapse structures and disrupt telecommunications services.
Other major telecommunication sites in Plumas County
Dyer Mountain, located east of Lake Almanor; Red Hill, located north of the Feather River Canyon; Radio Hill and Claremont Peak, located above Quincy; and Prospect Peak, located above Portola are five of the major telecommunications sites serving Plumas County.
ComSites West doesn’t own the telecommunications facility on Dyer Mountain. However, in Chambers’ opinion, that facility is “underpowered.” He recommended that the county encourage the owners to upgrade their facilities.
Chambers observed that the U.S. Forest Service was doing everything it could to protect communications facilities on Claremont Peak during the Minerva Fire. He noted that Claremont Peak was hard to access even before the fire. Sheriff Greg Hagwood made the same observation Aug. 1.
ComSites West’s concerns
Chambers characterized himself as someone who the county could trust to give correct information. He pointed out that he wasn’t a lawyer and said, “Whenever the providers hear the word ‘ordinance’ they scream bloody, muddy murder” and send in the lawyers.
The county’s draft telecommunications ordinance was based on an ordinance Plumas County Planning Director Randy Wilson wrote for Butte County.
Chambers’ concern was that the draft ordinance was too focused toward only cellular transmissions and that the draft ordinance was too onerous as written.
He said that the company already has had to go through federal environmental review during permitting through the Federal Communications Commission.
Chambers said that adding additional layers of regulation would just slow tower construction and upgrades and increase prices to the telecommunications companies and the public.
Wilson agreed with Chambers that the language at present was onerous because it was written for a more urban area. Butte County includes the cities of Chico and Oroville, as well as the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Wilson told Chambers, “We are looking at critical communications in the county and the issue of cell phone [and Internet] reception.”
In terms of emergency services, Wilson said, “Our county is very vulnerable to disasters.” He added, “We are looking at communications for first responders.
Wilson told Chambers that the county would like to know the extent of cellular providers’ coverage (“search rings”) and signal strength. He added, “I don’t think the county is looking to create an onerous process.”
Wilson also told Chambers that he was grateful to have Chambers’ advice.Chambers responded that he would like to work with Wilson to create a workable telecommunications ordinance and added, “We understand public safety needs,” pointing out that ComSites West has contracted with Yuba County to provide all that county’s communications needs.