Minot residents welcome cellular service that works when and where they want it. Not so welcomed, though, are the towers and poles necessary to provide the service.
That's the conflict that has the city talking with cellular companies about ways to maximize service while minimizing the towers, particularly through co-location of wireless equipment wherever possible. City staff and officials met in April with company representatives to begin a dialogue.
Companies say they are on board with co-location, and with good reason. From a construction standpoint, it's a faster and less expensive way to get infrastructure in place, said Cheryl Riley of Cheyenne, Wyo., AT&T's director of external affairs for the region that includes North Dakota.
Communication antennas share space with a water tower along 16th Avenue Southwest in Minot. Co-location and the use of existing tower structures are ways that cellular companies are extending service while staying as unobtrusive as possible.
Workers climb a new cellular tower in northeast Minot in this mid-May photo from SRT Communications. They are completing work to get the SRT tower operational by the end of June.
"Many of our sites in Minot are owned by third parties. It means that they are open for co-location. We certainly do co-locate on a regular basis," Riley said. "We love co-location."
Even with co-location, the number of cell towers within the city of Minot has grown and is expected to continue to grow. A map provided to the Minot Planning Commission in April showed 27 cellular communication antennas on cell towers, buildings or elevated water tanks. Other government and private antennas are in addition.
The planning commission and city council this year approved permits for seven new sites for Verizon Wireless. Discussions are continuing on a site southwest of Minot near Behm's truck stop after the commission rejected an original proposal. Verizon expects to request more sites, of which one might be a co-location, said Karen Smith, spokeswoman for Verizon in the Great Plains Region, Plymouth, Minn.
Verizon's tower proposals call for monopoles averaging 70 to 100 feet in height.
Much of Verizon's expansion is due to the need to increase capacity to support a growing number of phones and smartphone data plans.
"There are some towers that are supporting very high traffic now. There are others we project to be in the same situation sooner than later," Smith said.
She said the preference is to add capacity to existing towers, but sometimes it's necessary to fill in with additional infrastructure.
To locate a new tower, companies identify geographical zones that satisfy their coverage needs and seek suitable locations within those zones. Because a company's towers need to "speak" to each other, it may not be possible to co-locate on another tower if that tower is out of range.
SRT Communications has co-located with other carriers at about two dozen sites, said Shawn Grosz, chief technology officer. However, it is easier to co-locate on rural towers, which might be 340-feet high, than on towers in city limits, which typically are less than 200 feet high, because of the equipment spacing needed, he said.
SRT is developing three new wireless towers, expected to be operational by the end of June. The locations are in an industrial park in northeast Minot and in growth areas in northwest and southwest Minot.
"We try to keep the public interest in mind, but you definitely have to be in a specific place in order to provide the service," Grosz said.
AT&T and Verizon also are sensitive to public concerns over a proliferation of towers.
"We always work with the city, but we are finding that part of what we need to do is educate the public about why the towers are necessary," Smith said.
Thanks to newer technology, cellular companies are using existing towers to offer more advanced service.
AT&T launched Project Velocity IP in November 2012 to bring 4G Long-Term Evolution service, the most advanced high-speed broadband technology, to its customers. Minot was the first North Dakota community to get AT&T's 4G LTE. AT&T invested more than $80 million in its North Dakota wired and wireless networks from 2010 to 2013 with 14 new sites, 203 capacity enhancements and 100 enhanced fiber backhauls.
Andy Sackreiter, radio access network director for AT&T, Minneapolis, said AT&T doesn't need new towers for coverage in Minot at this time, although it is adding more sites in rural, western North Dakota. Existing towers in Minot also have adequate capacity, but AT&T is looking ahead and planning for upgrades to meet its forecasted growth. Sackreiter said the company is looking at adding additional LTE frequencies over the next year to boost its capacity.
Verizon launched 4G LTE service in Minot in August 2012 as part of a statewide buildout completed by the end of 2013. Verizon recently expanded that service with Advanced Wireless Service, or XLTE, which adds another spectrum to expand capacity. It enables Verizon to, at minimum, double the capacity on its 4G LTE network.
This means more customers in high-traffic locations can access the technology at the same time to send photos, download videos or surf the Internet during times of peak usage. The technology is particularly effective in ensuring good connections during times of concentrated use, such as rush hours and large events, according to Verizon. Most of Verizon's newer phones are XLTE-capable.
According to the North Dakota Public Service Commission, the number of wireless phones in use in North Dakota is estimated at 521,578, about a 76 percent increase in the past decade. But it's the business potential for wireless that is driving the industry in western North Dakota.
"North Dakota is just a great case study on things going on in the wireless market. There's so much economic boom in the state with oil and farming and ranching. All those industries are really going high-tech," said AT&T's Riley. "It's really changing our world, and it's allowing a lot of real-time data to be analyzed in the oil field. It's allowing seniors to interact with their doctors without having to travel. There's some really great opportunities for us, so we are just going to see that we get the infrastructure in place and work with jurisdictions to do it the right way."