Norwich Divided Over Tower Site

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New rules about emergency communications being tackled in Norwich are also challenging many other Vermont communities.

The Federal Communications Commission has ordered mobile radios and pagers to operate with much less bandwidth by January of next year. The goal is to make room for an expanding number of users. 

But, some towns, including Norwich, may have to build new transmission towers.

As soon as Neil Fulton took the job as Norwich Town Manager last April, he was faced with a huge challenge-how to meet a tight deadline to comply with the new FCC rule.

The regulation would drastically reduce the signal strength of radios used by fire, police, and public works departments. He says other communities that have already converted to narrowband systems are running into problems. 

"One of the examples I’m aware of in Vermont is, with the narrowbanding, they don’t have pagers go off in a fire station, which is within less than ten miles of the tower," Fulton said.

Many firefighters are volunteers who work farther than that from the firehouse.

"And if we can’t notify our firefighters in Norwich, and some of them work in adjoining towns, then we’ve got a real problem because there’s nobody else to come," Fulton added.

The town needs new equipment plus an additional tower to compensate for the weaker signals. So Fulton started applying for grants to help respond to the new narrowband rule. The select board approved an agreement to work with VTel, the Springfield telecommunications company. VTel would build the tower on land near the public works garage that the company would lease from the town.

Late last month, voters were asked to approve a bond that would fund additional equipment to complete the system upgrade.

They said no.

Watt Alexander, an attorney who lives near the proposed tower site, was not surprised.

"That bond vote in some ways reflects frustration, confusion and in some cases real concern, about not just the "where" but the "how" that this has been pursued," Alexander said.

He agrees with Fulton that a new tower has to be built. But he says there are better, less intrusive sites. He’s also not sure the town is getting enough from the VTel deal, and he believes the town’s own zoning has been skirted, as regulatory power has been ceded to the state’s Public Service Board.

"The question then is not whether you build towers or not but how you build towers, and this I believe so far is a case study in how not to build a tower," he said.

But VTel Spokeswoman Sharon Combes-Farr says it makes sense for the town to partner with the company, to hold down costs and enjoy a mutual benefit from a new tower.

"That is attractive from our perspective because of course it’s well situated, it’s elevated, it will be tall. . . so it just seems like an opportunity where we could participate with the town, and really a win-win for everybody," she said.

Details have yet to be worked out, and the agreement is not yet binding. VTel wants to use the tower to expand broadband service, but says it would share revenue it gets from renting out space to other users, such as cell phone service providers.

But opponents say Norwich should ask the FCC to extend the deadline so the town can further study the options. Town Manager Fulton, however, remains convinced that the tower site is optimal and cost-effective, and does not plan to seek an extension.

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