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Speedy Wireless Cell Service in Nome Looks More Plausible With AT&T Tower Progress

A year from now, Nome-ites could be looking up at new scenery on Front Street. Photo: Jenn Ruckel, KNOM.

The prospect of speedy, wireless cell service in Nome is becoming more likely, as telecommunications company AT&T moves forward with plans to build a 150-foot cell tower on Front Street.

The massive company hopes to work on their existing property downtown—erecting the antenna at 105 Front Street next to their satellite dish. According to David Stringer with Cascadia PM, the company contracted to execute the project, AT&T has already purchased the tower. And it’s possible other wireless carriers, like Verizon, could use it one day.

But before any cement is laid—or a building permit is even submitted—Nome’s Planning Commission has to field numerous questions from the public. At last night’s public hearing, commissioner Sara Lizak echoed enthusiasm while broaching the first of many safety concerns.

“Full disclosure, I am an AT&T customer, I desperately want this tower to be built, but I am really concerned about the dangers of it icing up and potentially killing people,” said Lizak. “We have these storms that throw up chunks of ice and break-wall onto Front Street, and [the tower] is directly in that path.”

According to the current design, the tower would be built to withstand 130 MPH wind with no ice and 80 MPH wind with a quarter inch of ice, but Scott Johnson inquired if it will be engineered well enough to account for its location beside the seashore. And then there’s the concern of metal corrosion with constant exposure to saltwater spray.

Commissioner Robert Cahoon wants to make sure the tower is properly lit. It’s short enough and far enough from the runway that the Federal Aviation Administration won’t require lighting, but commissioners pointed out that the tower would neighbor a seasonal ice runway during Iditarod, so pilots need to see it clearly.

With so many obstacles on the coast, it seems a counterintuitive place to build, but David Stringer said it’s the cost-effective option for AT&T.

“Towers can be placed anywhere. It’s whether AT&T wants to expend the money to do it,” said Stringer. “This is their property—the power’s right there and the Internet is right there, so they have figures based on that. I’m sure it’s driven by cost.”

Given the community’s safety concerns, though, Stringer said he’ll inquire with AT&T about other potential locations. It’s too soon for some answers—like exactly how far out of town service will extend, or whether AT&T will stick with the slower satellite transmission or switch to terrestrial—but one thing is certain: this tower is designed to sustain up to three wireless carriers.

Map shows theoretical wireless cell coverage for AT&T users, with area in red symbolizing "four bar."

Map shows theoretical wireless cell coverage for AT&T users, with area in red symbolizing “four bars,” or full coverage.

Cascadia PM also builds Verizon’s network in Alaska, and expansion in the bush may not be as far away as once believed. Next year, Verizon is adding 51 sites on the Kenai Peninsula, and Stringer says about 90 percent of those are existing towers. It’s a savings for both providers to collocate instead of building separate towers, so when and if Verizon looks toward the Seward Peninsula, they’ll already have a structure to support their service.

It’ll definitely change the downtown landscape, but Scott Johnson said it’s about time for a change.

“It’s not going to be the most pleasant thing to look at, but let’s be real, it’s almost 2015. Nome needs modern communications,” he said.

If all goes smoothly with the permitting process, Cascadia PM wants to start building this coming spring or summer.