WTIP file photo

County board approves new tower and the arrival of cell service to the Gunflint Trail

Cell phone coverage up the Gunflint Trail has been an issue for many years.

Some want cell coverage up the Trail. Others don’t.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners brought cell service on the Gunflint Trail one step closer to reality during a meeting Dec. 22.

The commissioners unanimously approved a plan for the county to enter a lease agreement that will provide AT&T to build a new tower near Gunflint Lake.

According to the Cook County tower ordinance, a new provider must first co-locate on an existing tower if that is feasible. The current tower at Gunflint Lake is heavily loaded with the ARMER system, WTIP and radio equipment from several other government entities, including the United States Forest Service, Border Patrol and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, according to Rena Rogers, the IT director for Cook County.

The current tower would not accommodate the equipment load required by AT&T, so they have gone through the process with Cook County Land Services to permit for a new tower. The construction of the new tower will be financed and managed by AT&T but the tower will be owned by the county, Rogers said. The new tower will be less than 200 ft. in height, which means it will not need lights.

The lease agreement approved by the county board Tuesday includes a provision for the county to pay back AT&T for the cost of the tower through 50 percent rent abatement, Rogers said. The tower will be constructed to accommodate three cell providers.

In a statement sent to WTIP, Rogers said the county is “hopeful that construction will begin early in the next year’s construction season” and that it “is possible that cell service could be functional sometime next year.”

Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk, whose district includes the Gunflint Trail, acknowledged that some local residents are not in favor of bringing cell service to the remote area known for wilderness and solitude. However, Doo-Kirk said there is a larger issue of safety and efficient communication that needs to be considered in this discussion about cell service on the Gunflint Trail.

Not specifically mentioned during the board meeting was the fact that indeed cell service will now be a reality in certain areas of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a result of this action.

Listen to the audio below to hear Doo-Kirk addressing this issue during the Dec. 22 meeting of the county board.