SUTTONS BAY — Blanketing Leelanau County with high-speed internet capability will cost about $4 million and involves building one more tower to add to the five the county now owns.
That’s according to the Leelanau Internet Futures Team (LIFT), which recently presented a plan to the Leelanau County Board to bring internet service to more county residents.
But therein lies the rub. Many people want better internet service, but they don’t want towers disturbing the pristine beauty of Leelanau landscapes.
“How do we cover the county with high speed internet service to assure that everyone or almost everyone has access?” said Patricia Soutas-Little, LIFT chairwoman and a county commissioner.
“People don’t want new towers and I understand that … nobody wants to look at a bunch of towers.”
The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians has another idea. The GTB last week began installing fiber-optic cable along state and county roads in Leelanau County and hopes to become competitive with internet service providers in the area, including Spectrum, formerly Charter Communications.
GTB representatives did not return calls for comment.
But service providers say towers provide the best — and cheapest — way to bring the internet signal to county residents.
One company, the Elk Rapids-based Cherry Capital Communications, has been leasing two towers from the county for about 11 years, said owner Tim Maylone.
“Even with those towers it’s not enough,” Maylone said, adding that he’d like to put up 10-15 more. His company currently has about 300 customers in Leelanau, but could bring internet to many more, he said.
The towers are 12 inches in diameter and 128 feet tall — about 40 feet taller than a full grown oak or maple tree, he said.
“These towers hide themselves well, but emotions get in the way and bad decisions are made,” Maylone said.
LIFT formed in 2016 to look at the status of broadband services in the county and to put together a plan that would give all county residents access to high-speed internet.
A survey asking residents, businesses, schools, government offices and more about their internet needs garnered about 1,600 responses and found a lack of infrastructure is the main barrier to county-wide internet.
Soutas-Little said she is not sure how many homes and businesses in the county do not have access to high-speed internet, but said the survey found many who do have internet say it’s too slow, unreliable and expensive.
The LIFT plan would allow private companies to lease five county-owned towers and possibly build one more, Soutas-Little said. The cost to build a new tower is about $1 million, with other costs related to reinforcing the towers to hold more equipment or making them taller, she said.
“We’re trying to keep with a private-sector solution,” she said, adding that the competition would bring costs down. “It also keeps government out of an area where it really shouldn’t be.”
The group also will seek state and federal grant money to help cover the expansion, Soutas-Little said.
County-owned towers are located on West Eighth Street and East Davis Road in Leelanau Township; South Pit Road in Leland Township; South Tower Road in Kasson Township; and on South Benzonia Trail in Empire Township.
Matt Ansorge, emergency management director for Leelanau County, has been tasked with creating a policy for internet service providers to rent space on the towers. That policy should be presented at the May meeting, Soutas-Little said.
“I’m encouraged that we can start right away and really expand capabilities,” Soutas-Little said.
All high-speed internet service is delivered on some type of broadband technology, such as cable, satellite or DSL, which uses phone lines. Fiber-optic cable is run underground, while cellular towers are used to move a satellite signal from point to point.
Once a wireless signal is brought into an area, fiber-optic cable can be used to bring the service into a home, but it is very expensive, Maylone said. It is feasible once a service provider has built up a customer base, he said. His company is installing the cable to service customers in the Gills Pier area.
Zoning ordinances that regulate towers are different in every township, Soutas-Little said. The ordinances were established to protect residents, but also work against establishing a high-speed connection for many residents, she said.
Cherry Capital Communications is fighting a battle in 13th Circuit Court to erect a tower on private property at 2020 S. French Road in Centerville Township. The tower could deliver high-speed internet to about 125 customers in Centerville Township.
The company asked the township for a special use permit for the tower — and got it, Maylone said.
But Dan Matthies, who owns Chateau Fontaine Winery near where the tower would be located, filed an appeal, arguing that the tower would mar the landscape. Matthies also said there are better locations for the tower that won’t be next to where wine tastings and weddings take place.
The township overturned the special use permit, prompting Maylone to file an appeal on behalf of his company in circuit court.
Ron Schaub owns the French Road farm where the tower is planned.
“The tower is so small and insignificant,” Schaub said. “It’s going to be hard to even see it.”
After 80 years, economics forced Schaub out of dairy farming and he is now raising beef cattle. He’ll lease one acre of land to Cherry Capital for placement of the tower.
“I didn’t see any problem with it because it’s back away from my house up on a hill,” Schaub said.
In the meantime, Maylone said he is determined to get his tower built and is prepared to go all the way.
“People are demanding service and we are unable to deliver,” he said.