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Cutting Red Tape for Tower Construction

Radio towers allow ISPs to transfer wireless Internet signals across wide distances, providing broadband service to both smartphones and homes. Emmet County, Michigan, is making it easier to put up more towers and use existing buildings to transmit wireless broadband signals, reaching more residents by revising zoning laws.

To successfully transmit a reliable signal, no obstructions—such as trees, taller buildings or hills—can stand between the signal transmitter and its destination. This requires that the transmission devices be located high in the air, above trees and obstructions. Many rural towns, which could benefit most from wireless signals, institute zoning ordinances preventing tall objects from breaking up the skyline. While the zoning ordinances preserve the natural beauty of the landscape, they also make it difficult for ISPs to install new towers and new technology. The Emmet County Planning and Zoning Commission recently revised their zoning regulations to maintain the natural landscape while still enhancing broadband access.

“We had already allowed towers to be placed on existing structures without a special use hearing, application, or planning commission,” explained Tammy Doernenburg, Emmet County Planning and Zoning Director. “We also increased the height of a tower that can be approved administratively, as long as they meet certain criteria.”

These criteria ensure the towers are far enough away from homes and towns that they won't create a distraction. They also limit the height of the towers, allowing the structures to be sufficiently taller than trees and other obstructions. Finding a successful middle ground, the new zoning ordinances also make co-location easier, by allowing placement of transmission hardware on top of existing towers and other buildings. With the ability to approve towers under 60 feet through administrative approval, ISPs can build new towers without going through months of red tape.

Revising the zoning ordinance was first suggested by representatives from a group of townships in the county, and also by an interested ISP. Originally, the townships and ISP recommended reducing red tape for even taller towers, up to 100 feet. To protect the beautiful rural landscape throughout Emmet County and accommodate all 12 townships, administrators met in the middle with easier access for shorter towers.

“It brought to the planning commission's attention that there is a need for broadband in our rural areas,” said Doernenburg. “It also brought all of our townships together so everyone would be aware of this need.”

Doernenburg looks forward to working with more ISPs in the future to facilitate co-location using existing assets and the construction of more towers to serve the townships that made the original inquiry.