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$33M emergency-services tower project to go online June 30

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia has started testing a $33 million upgrade to its emergency communications tower network -- a project designed to bolster public safety and make Internet available to homes in rural communities.

The two-year project, funded by the federal economic stimulus, expands the state's existing 90-tower network. The improvements are expected to nearly double the network's capacity for voice and data communications. The tower network also will likely link up with a national public safety system.

"You could stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and talk to the state Capitol here in West Virginia," said state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato, who helped lead a tour of a tower site atop Malden Mountain last week.

The $33 million is paying for new radio equipment and satellite dishes at existing tower sites, and up to 17 new towers across the state. Workers have finished erecting a dozen towers, with five more expected to be finished within the next two months.

State officials hope to have the expanded tower network up and running by June 30.

"You're going to be able to put much more [information and data] on there on the broadband side," said Joe Gonzalez, communications director with state Office of Emergency Medical Services.

West Virginia's application for the stimulus funds says that commercial telecommunication providers will be able to tap into to the tower network for the first time, and use the microwave network to serve new customers. Some companies have questioned whether the state will keep that promise.

Gale Given, chief technology officer for the state government, said she has investigated regulatory and technical issues and determined that state will allocate the tower network's bandwidth -- up to a third of the network's total capacity -- for commercial use.

The expected result: More West Virginians will have access to high-speed broadband Internet service, according to state officials.

"There will be capacity available for private entities, as outlined in the grant application," Given said. "At the end of the day, there will be private companies on there."

The state Lottery Commission, National Guard, Department of Homeland Security, State Police, hospitals and the state Office of Technology have expressed interest in using the network. Bandwidth also may be set aside for a national public safety project called FirstNet. The federal government hopes to have the $7 billion national network operating by 2016.

West Virginia's microwave tower system is now used exclusively by first responders: police officers, firefighters, 911 operators and paramedics. The existing public safety network is close to reaching its capacity, Given said.

Since 2003, the Legislature has distributed more than $20 million to establish the tower system -- called the Statewide Interoperable Radio Network -- that links individual counties' emergency communications networks.

The network allows first responders to use two-way radios to talk with emergency officials anywhere in the state.

"They can go onto individual channels or all on the same channel and talk to one another," said Dave Eubank, a project technician who can monitor the use of the entire network from a computer at the Malden tower site. "One radio allows them to talk to everybody."

The microwave towers will cover 87 percent of the state after the $33 million project is completed. A 100-square-mile area surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, Pocahontas County, has strict restrictions against radio use.

"A radio will work almost everywhere else in the state," said Gonzalez, who ran a Clarksburg-based tower construction company called Tri Star Communications until 1999.

The towers, located atop mountains and tall buildings, reach as high as 480 feet from a concrete foundation.

The microwave network is "99.99999 percent" reliable, Gonzalez said. Outages are extremely rare, he said. During the June 29 derecho, only one tower lost service -- for four hours --after a generator broke down in Marshall County.

Premier Construction Group of Jane Lew is erecting the 17 new towers. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Aviat Networks sold the radio equipment to the state. Alexander Utility Engineering of San Antonio helped design the network.

State officials have speculated that the microwave project's cost could rise to $50 million, but Gonzalez said the state wouldn't spend a penny more than the $33 million in stimulus funds budgeted for the upgraded network.

"At the end of the day, we got the best investment we could," said Gonzalez, a former fire chief in Clarksburg. "This story is an incredibly good one for the citizens of West Virginia."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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