BOONE — The Watauga County Board of Commissioners approved a contract on June 16 to purchase a 1.047-acre tract of land for $100,000 in the Sampson area for the possibility of building a tower to improve county emergency communications.
The property is located at 1463 Sampson Road, and the county approved the $100,000 purchase price. County Manager Deron Geouque said the county will now enter into a six-month due diligence period to ensure the property is viable for the placement of a tower, with another six-month extension allowable if needed. Emergency Services Director Will Holt expressed that the deal is still in the early stages of the process.
Geouque added that the purchase price of the property is a “good deal,” as the county would typically enter into monthly leases on tower sites that can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $3,500 a year.
For the past several years, the county has discussed upgrades to its emergency communication system as there are still spots in Watauga with unreliable communication due to geography. The hope has been to add a state system called VIPER (Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders) — maintained by the State Highway Patrol — to the county’s current VHF system.
Geouque mentioned the unsuccessful attempt to secure land in Blowing Rock near the Green Hill area for a tower in 2016, as well as discussions in 2019 of another property in the Sampson area that fell through. The county was able to locate a different piece of property off of Sampson Road, and Geouque said VIPER officials have expressed interest in the property. VIPER officials would build the tower and would be responsible for maintaining it if the property is deemed viable.
Additionally, the site has the potential of adding internet capabilities to service the Sampson area. Geouque explained that VIPER used to not allow any commercial application to be placed on towers. Within the last year or so, VIPER has started to allow third-party cable and telecommunications vendors to attach to towers to service areas without internet or with poor internet.
“There’s a potential for us to partner here and potentially provide internet service; (we’re) trying to find a third party,” Geouque said.
Geouque mentioned the amount of emails the board has received during the COVID-19 pandemic from Watauga residents discussing the lack of internet or availability of quality internet in the county. Commissioner Charlie Wallin said the Sampson area is underserved when it comes to internet, and that he was passionate about the county doing “anything we can do to improve internet.”
The last few years have also included discussions of a new communications tower in Foscoe. According to Holt, the Foscoe Volunteer Fire Department is in real estate negotiations for a possible site as well. This is in addition to the existing VHF tower sites in Buckeye (currently a hybrid site with VIPER), Rich Mountain, Howard’s Knob and Wildcat Mountain.
Holt added that examining where towers can be placed in the mountains takes a lot of consideration, such as license approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration and where the Federal Communications Commission will allow towers to be placed based on possible frequency interference.
In February 2019, the county was discussing plans for a five-site multi-channel communications system. Holt explained that neither Howard’s Knob nor Wildcat Mountain are being looked at as longterm tower sites. The current plan would be to have roughly four sites: Buckeye, Rich Mountain, Sampson and the Foscoe area. The county may later need smaller sites to fill in service gaps, but Holt said the decisions are being made based on maps and coverage area rather than an exact number of sites.
Watauga also has access to two VIPER towers that are not technically within the county but are near the county line, Holt said. These sites include towers in Cranberry Springs in Ashe County and Beech Mountain in Avery County.