County targets tower contracts, fees in effort to attract internet providers

by Kate Shunney

As part of their effort to address spotty broadband internet service coverage across the county, the Morgan County Commissioners will consider changes to how private companies use county towers.

County officials talked last Wednesday, January 16, about lowering fees that companies pay to place their internet and cell equipment on six towers. They also asked Prosecuting Attorney Dan James to advise them if and how equipment already on the towers could be removed.

A private consultant, Design Nine of Blacksburg, Va., has been drafting a broadband plan for the county with federal grant funding since late last year.

The plan will recommend how the county could use six existing telecommunications towers as the backbone of a countywide broadband service network. In an earlier presentation, consultants said that network plan would help attract service providers who can get affordable and reliable broadband internet service to residents.

Morgan County’s Purslane Tower.

Last week, Commission President Joel Tuttle said he thought the “grand notion” of trying to bring high-speed broadband internet to the county had been too much of a focus.

“I think we’ve been so set on the broadband grant and future funds we might get, it feels like we’ve lost focus on the goal. The goal is not for Morgan County to provide broadband service but for companies to provide it,” said Tuttle.

Former commissioner Bob Ford, who was the driver behind the broadband planning grant, had made it clear during his last meeting in December that the goal of the effort was not for Morgan County to get into the internet service business.

Consultants have said the county can make improvements to their towers and attract wireless internet service providers to those towers through a number of steps.

Lowering the cost for companies to place equipment on county towers is one of those steps.

Tuttle said he wants to revisit the county’s Policy for the Co-location of Private Telecommunications Facilities on County Property

, adopted in 2016. That policy guides how a cellular or internet company could rent space on county towers and what they will pay for it.

“What I see is we have multiple towers with no equipment,” said Tuttle.

He said he’s been told by service providers like Morgan Wireless, a Berkeley Springs company, that the county’s tower rent is “cost prohibitive” for small companies who could get broadband to local customers. Morgan Wireless representative Ron Martin has argued for years that the county has blocked companies like his from tower use through the high rent fees.

Tuttle said it doesn’t look like service companies are “banging down the door” to get equipment on county towers under the current policy.

He said he wants to consider lowering the tower rent. His second proposal was for the county to update or void agreements with internet companies using county towers but not paying fees to do so.

“There are people on our towers that don’t pay us,” Tuttle said.

In discussions with Prosecutor James, county officials said VisualLink, a Virginia company, and SkyWeb, a local company, both have internet equipment on county towers for free.

Officials said SkyWeb, owned by Emmett Capper, had a verbal agreement with the county, but no written contract. James said the county should contact him directly to discuss the terms of that arrangement.

There is a written agreement with Visual Link dated August 2006 under which the company agreed to pay 10 percent of their “last mile revenue” to the county. In 12 years, the county appears to have received one payment of $97.44, said County Administrator Stefanie Allemong.

James advised the county to contact company owner Mark Bayliss and demand an accounting for what he is due to pay.

James said court action might be required to remove the companies’ equipment if their agreements with the county are no longer valid.

Tuttle said updating the tower policy and pricing was a way to bring more companies into the county to offer internet.

“The goal is to try to get some people some internet. I don’t think that’s been the goal and I apologize to constituents for that,” said Tuttle.

“The key consideration when you revisit these is it has to be a fair and universal agreement,” Prosecutor James said. “You get into muddy waters if you say a small person pays less and a big company pays more.”