ASHEVILLE - Buncombe is already in the cell tower landowning business but now the county wants to up its telecommunications business game.
A 12-page request for proposal that closed to submissions Sept. 29 shows Buncombe is seeking a firm to help it market and manage county-owned land for “telecommunications facilities.”
Though the Citizen Times requested proposals turned in Sept. 29, Buncombe refused the request, stating, "At this time all of the submittals are being reviewed. It is practice of the county to not release proposals until a contract has been awarded, once a contract is awarded all proposals will become public record."
Specifically, the county is trying to “obtain the services of a qualified licensed firm to provide development and management services for wireless telecommunications facilities in Buncombe County on an as-needed basis,” the RFP states. The hired firm would then market, develop, sublicense, manage and maintain telecommunications facilities.
The stated purpose of this deal is to make as much money off the land as possible, according to the RFP, which states it wants to hire the firm “(i)n order to maximize the revenues that can be generated from the installation of telecommunications facilities on its property.”
Some Buncombe-owned towers currently are located in the mountains, according to tower locator website antennasearch.com. Others are located on buildings. There is the potential to place more towers on Buncombe County School properties, even though that organization is a separate entity from Buncombe government, according to part of the RFP.
When asked, the county stated it's not sure how many new sites they want to add while the firm is under contract.
"That will depend on the viability of the potential sites and will be determined definitively after the award is made and work begins with the selected bidder," a document related to the project stated.
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Primary responsibilities of the hired firm include:
Identifying county sites that may be appropriate for the installation of these telecommunications facilities.
Negotiating and managing third party licenses (sublicenses) for the use of these telecommunications facilities.
Managing the construction of the telecommunications facilities.
This move to hire a firm to deepen the county’s telecommunications land-leasing revenue ventures is not a first foray into the business.
According to public documents, Buncombe currently has 17 tower sites, seven where it owns the land and tower, four where it owns the towers and has leases in place with landowners, and six where the county is a tenant on the land.
Of those 17 sites, Buncombe currently has leases in place with entities that include:
Progress Energy — now merged with Duke Energy
Global Tower Services
Several private entities
But these companies aren’t actively courting Buncombe, according to spokesperson Kassi Day. Rather, hiring the firm to grow the county’s telecommunications footprint is an effort to expand services.
"This RFP was born out of conversations around exploring ways to expand broadband access, and proactively manage our tower sites," Day said.
IT Division Manager Vance Bell also addressed the county's intentions to build more towers.
"This RFP was not a result of any telecommunication company outreach or planning,” Bell said. “(It) came about from county driven goals to improve the management of our existing tower sites and to look at other county-owned properties that could potentially be viable to enhance or expand telecommunication/broadband services within the county.”
According to Buncombe's financial department, the county made $140,124 in revenue from towers in fiscal year 2022.
Bell said the amount it could realize utilizing the contracted firm’s services was yet to be determined.
Broadband enhancement for rural areas has been a forte of recent local and state grant investments.
Buncombe has pitched a total $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars at broadband expansion since 2021.
It also is set to receive $3.3 million in North Carolina state funding to expand high-speed internet connectivity to nearly 1,000 people in the Weaverville area who do not have service or who need better service.
Internet connectivity isn’t the only concern for Buncombe residents, however.
Many recently have complained Verizon cellular service has been poor, an issue the company acknowledged it was aware of to the Citizen Times.
Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schulz told the Citizen Times in July the company was "certainly hearing from some customers saying their service has changed."
Schulz also confirmed Verizon had plans to expand in the mountains.
Verizon is working to provide better service here in the mountains, which Schulz noted remains a largely rural service area.
"In 2022 alone, we will deploy 16 new network solutions in Western North Carolina, including new macro towers, small cell sites, capacity additions on current sites, and repeaters to increase 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) capacity and coverage," Schulz said in a July email to the Citizen Times.
"These network enhancements will impact Bent Creek southwest of Asheville, the Black Mountain area, Western Carolina University, Polk County between the city of Columbus and Saluda, Polk County between the city of Mill Spring and Union, Buncombe County south of Biltmore Village, the Royal Pines area, north of Candler, northeast of Black Mountain, in Henderson County near Zirconia, in Haywood county along I-40 between Iron Duff and Fines Creek, Waynesville, and northeast of Waynesville."
Andrew Jones is an investigative reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Buncombe seeks firm to manage more wireless tower land leases