Starting in mid-May, some commuters driving between Monroe and West Point along Route 293 may have noticed a change as their music didn’t stop streaming and their calls didn’t suddenly drop due to a lack of cellphone service.
The change was the result of a multi-year collaborative effort among West Point, the Army Corps of Engineers and Verizon Wireless to build a new cellphone tower between the U.S. Military Academy’s Camp Buckner and Camp Natural Bridge along Route 293. The construction of the new tower is the first step in the process of providing cell service along the 293 corridor and throughout West Point’s training areas. An AT&T tower is expected to be completed in spring 2021, which will further increase coverage in the area.
“There were enough instances in our training area along the route 293 corridor—Camp Buckner, Camp Natural Bridge, all the ranges and the motor pool—where we had some fatalities in areas where the normal radio communication was not sufficient to cover cadet training,” Gary Albaugh, West Point’s deputy chief information officer G-6, said. “We took upon an initiative to work with our cellphone partners—initially it was announced to the cellphone companies Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile AT&T—and we asked them if we could better improve coverage out in this area.”
The lack of coverage in the area was not exclusively detrimental to West Point, Albaugh said. It also hampered the ability for commuters to get help along 293 if there was an accident or other issues. There was one instance last year, he said, where someone had to drive all the way to Monroe for cellphone service before calling 911 to get help dispatched to an accident scene and the extra 25 minutes or so led to a fatality.
The increased cellphone service will also enable the academy to use cellphone GPS to track cadets during training if need be, Albaugh said. There is also the added benefit of improving the livelihood of active duty Soldiers who spend the summer at Camp Natural Bridge each year to conduct summer training.
“They come in and are deployed in a sense for about 90 to 120 days in the camps to support our mission at the academy,” Albaugh said. “They do so with no MWR functionality for their phones to work because that area had no coverage. There was no ability for them to talk to their significant others and spouses and children.”
The Verizon tower going online was the result of a multi-year process and an extensive construction project. Before they could build the tower, they had to do environmental reviews, Native American reviews and get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure it didn’t interfere with airplane or helicopter traffic.
Once they were cleared to begin construction, they had to time it around summer training because of the live-fire exercises, bad weather and even the mating season of the northern long-eared bat because they couldn’t disturb the bats’ habit during mating season as they are on the endangered species list.
“We lost construction time during about four to six months of the year because there were some bats that were doing the business in nature and you can’t cut down trees and build a road during that time,” Albaugh said.
The process of building the tower required them to build an access road to the site, move powerlines and utilities, and more. The final product should be visible from 293, Albaugh said, and sits on a site that has been leased to Verizon for 25 years by the Corps of Engineers.