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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

County’s fast approval of broadband-boosting towers draws complaint

A wireless company has received fast-track approval from Spokane County to construct three towers designed to boost broadband Internet speeds in rural areas.

Commissioners say the need for high-speed Internet access in outlying parts of the county, and the closing window for access to federal funds, trumps the usual lengthy public hearing process.

The decision has at least one competitor crying foul, though county planners say they received no complaints before green-lighting an emergency ordinance earlier this summer. And school district officials are excited about the possibility of faster log-on speeds.

Spokane County commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to extend the ordinance, written specifically for Ecliptixnet Broadband Inc., to construct three towers with federal grant money provided under President Barack Obama’s bailout legislation. In order to receive the money, the company must finalize its plans by the end of the month.

The county law excuses Ecliptixnet from certain public hearing provisions that are standard for construction of the towers, which can have a maximum height of 150 feet.

Ecliptixnet President Jeff Tamietti said the ordinance will allow his company to move from planning to construction. The towers are tentatively scheduled to go online by Aug. 31.

“You’ll see a brand-new service, with residential speeds between 12 and 16 megabits a second and business speeds of up to 50 megabits,” Tamietti said.

The towers are necessary in the north portions of the county to boost service to residents of the Riverside and Deer Park school districts, Commissioner Todd Mielke said.

“I don’t think that, simply because you live in rural areas, you’re not supposed to be exposed to modern technology,” Mielke said.

Roberta Kramer, superintendent of the Riverside School District, said faster Internet speeds in her area are essential to making sure all students are on an even playing field.

“Folks are left with dial-up, which is less expensive, but there are questions about reliability,” Kramer said. “It’s also just so time-consuming, and that makes it really difficult for the students.”

Not everyone is thrilled that one company will be able to bypass the public hearing process. Jim Wilson, president of wireless company Ptera, called the county’s actions “absolutely unfair” and said it could cost jobs for his company and others in the market.

“It’s inappropriate for them to gain an advantage from the government over other competitors,” Wilson said last week, adding that he’s invested at least $1 million on applications to build towers in northern Spokane County. Wilson said his company is planning its next move and has informed other providers of the towers’ construction.

Ptera provides service to the areas that will be served by Ecliptixnet’s new towers. Wilson conceded that the new tower would improve signal strength and speed in the area, but objected to the county’s specific writing of an ordinance to benefit one company.

Tamietti said his company was the only one in the region to complete the federal government’s application process for funding of rural broadband systems. The company has signed lease agreements with property owners, and Mielke said the office received no complaints from surrounding property owners.

“If anything, the only thing close to opposition are those landowners who would like the tower moved to their property, because there is a long-term lease arrangement,” Mielke said.

The details of those agreements are private, Tamietti said.

The towers would be available to other service providers in the county, including emergency services, he added. The language of the ordinance does not require Ecliptixnet to share tower space with other commercial wireless providers.

One man spoke against the ordinance at a public hearing last week. Bart Haggin, who has fought deforestation on Mount Spokane, said he objected to the towers’ construction because of the effects on the environment.

“It just seems like there’s no respect for the natural world,” Haggin said.

The county plans to change the law back to requiring a public hearing schedule for future towers after Ecliptixnet has filed its building permits. Tamietti said that should occur by the end of the month.