Sperryville tower finally equipped to provide service
By Sara Schonhardt — For Foothills Forum
More than a year after the contentious cell tower in Sperryville was erected, service providers have finally added their equipment and are preparing to provide service to surrounding residents.
Piedmont Broadband is slated to finish installing its transmitters on the tower Friday (tomorrow) and be operational. The equipment is capable of serving between 80 to 100 new customers, and the company expects to provide service to many areas in Sperryville and Woodville that it was previously unable to reach, according to office manager Jess Settle.
“Hopefully we get a lot of people on it,” she said. “Sperryville has been one of our weak areas because it’s so mountainous.”
Telecom infrastructure company Community Wireless Structures built the tower in April 2019 to provide cellular and internet service to a grossly underserved area and boost public safety agencies’ ability to respond to emergencies. But the communications providers who expressed interest in mounting their transmitters on the tower only began installations this year, in part because of a lack of fiber optic cable that would have made wiring it easier.
Comcast ran fiber to the tower several months ago and the county will use that connection for the fire and rescue system, said County Administrator Garrey Curry. The fire and rescue paging equipment is installed and set to go live in a few weeks. When it does it will serve all seven companies.
Hope McCreary, project manager at CWS, said Verizon has also installed its antennas and they should be on air sometime in August or early September. T-Mobile is working on its install, but it’s currently in merger talks with Shentel, which did not respond to questions regarding the status of its equipment.
Curry hopes eventually AT&T makes its way onto the tower, too. According to the county’s lease agreement with CWS, its rent is waived if three or more providers lease space on the monopole.
Turning to towers is a first for Piedmont Broadband, which has traditionally put its equipment up in trees. That makes it easier and cheaper to provide service, but with the recent surge in demand, the tower will allow it to serve more customers.
The company is still trying to catch up from April, when requests for new installs more than quadrupled due to COVID-19 stay at home orders.
Since then Piedmont has worked to expand its team of technicians from two to four using money it received through the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal relief fund for small businesses.
Foothills Forum is an independent, community-supported nonprofit tackling the need for in-depth research and reporting on Rappahannock County issues.
The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other award-winning reporting projects. More at foothills-forum.org.
It plans to devote two technicians to adding new customers to the Sperryville tower and another two to running service calls. Settle said they expect to be able to do eight or more installs per week.
The company has added around 30 new customers since March, less than normal Settle said because it wasn’t prepared for the high volume of current customers who would need their service on a daily basis.
Piedmont’s network was initially built for 200-300 customers, not the more than 500 customers it has currently. The company is working with a network engineer to improve its infrastructure, but so far it has only made a small dent in lack of connectivity facing people across the county, particularly those in its hollows.
“Unfortunately, because of the mountainous terrain of Rappahannock County I would say that we can’t get service to about half of the people who request it,” said Settle. “It’s a huge problem . . . but we’re a small company that doesn’t get any outside funding so we can only do so much.”
Construction of an additional cell tower in Scrabble that would fill a coverage gap along Route 522, and which the Board of Supervisors approved in February, is on hold until a carrier is ready to proceed, McCreary said.
CWS would like to develop one or more sites along the Route 231 corridor but needs to have a wireless service provider willing to commit to providing service, she said.
Shentel had indicated interest when CWS was seeking approval for the infrastructure, but McCreary noted that carriers have a limited amount of capital to deploy toward building new sites, and priorities and budgets are constantly shifting.
Click here to sign up for the C-19 Daily Update, a free newsletter delivered to your email inbox every morning.