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New tower goes up in Westlake, but not for broadband as originally planned

Crews finally erected the long-discussed communications tower in Westlake last week, piecing together the monopine tower resembling a 160-foot evergreen tree behind the former Grand Home Furnishings building.

But it won’t do anything to improve wireless internet access in that community, as we originally planned. Instead, internet provider Seiontec is now planning to install equipment on a existing tower on Smith Mountain to serve the Westlake area. Seiontec, whose president said in August the Westlake tower is too low to reach enough customers, did not respond to a call or email seeking more information on its change of plans.

“They have provided data that indicates they can cover Westlake from that [Smith Mountain] location,” said Steve Sandy, assistant county administrator for Franklin County.

The recently constructed tower in Westlake is currently only expected to have equipment for Verizon installed sometime early next year. “I don’t believe it will include fixed wireless broadband coverage initially,” Sandy said.

Even though the broadband equipment was moved to another location on Smith Mountain, construction on the Westlake tower still had to move forward due to a contract between Franklin County and Blue Ridge Towers, which had agreed to construct seven communications towers in the county.

Much of this work is funded through the $2.4 million Virginia Telecommunications Initiative grant provided for the countywide project in 2020. Sandy said the state has approved plans to move the broadband equipment to Smith Mountain instead of Westlake to fulfill the obligations from the state to receive the grant funding.

The tower is the last of seven communications towers constructed in Franklin County with the goal of improving broadband internet access to underserved residents. It was delayed more than a year due to negotiations between Booker T. Washington National Monument and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Due to the tower’s potential impact to Booker T. Washington National Monument’s viewshed, the tower’s location was moved farther back on the 12-acre lot behind Grand Home Furnishings. It was also reduced from a height of 199 feet to 160 feet and changed to monopine tower to better blend in with the surroundings.

The Westlake tower was originally supposed to provide broadband internet through the company Briscnet. That company withdrew from the project late last year and Seiontec took over.

At a meeting of the Franklin County Broadband Authority in August, Seiontec President Darrell Haag announced he would not be installing broadband equipment on the Westlake tower due to its height. He said the height would be too low to provide adequate service to the area and announced plans to install the equipment on a tower on Smith Mountain.

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