Poor Fort Collins cell signal labeled "dangerous," costing taxpayers $500,000+
For more than a decade residents and visitors to Fort Collins have been complaining of insufficient cellphone service in the major Colorado city, and now some local public officials are calling the lack of coverage a threat to public safety.
No matter the provider, cellphone users have growingly noticed that Fort Collins has some of the worst coverage out of any of Colorado's largest cities.
Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T and more have all historically had spotty coverage throughout Colorado's fourth-largest city. And, where there is a signal, oftentimes it is not strong enough for internet services to load at the speed most have come accustomed to.
For the first time not only is the city publicly taking the blame for much of the issue, but some of the city's highest-ranking officials are weighing in on how the poor coverage comes at the cost of both taxpayer dollars and public safety.
"What we have seen over the last several years is continuing degradation," said Justin Smith, Larimer County's outgoing sheriff. "Coverage in Fort Collins is really substandard by a lot of measures these days, and that needs to change."
Fort Collins is the largest city in Smith's jurisdiction. For most who rely on the signal in Fort Collins, the poor service is nothing more than an inconvenience most days.
However, Smith, who is retiring due to term limits, said it is more than just an annoyance for first responder safety.
"It is frustrating to the point of being dangerous," Smith said. "The network has come to the point of being dangerous right here in our office which is right here in the middle of Fort Collins."
At the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, located just off Prospect Road, most cell providers are unable to send a text or make a call without a delay.
While that may be a small inconvenience for most, Smith noted that the poor signal means his deputies are at risk of not obtaining critical information during emergency responses.
"Our police computers use the cellphone network," Smith said. "The laptops over the years have become the lifeline for first responders."
The laptops in deputy vehicles not only help monitor their exact location but also relay and receive information during active emergency situations.
If a deputy is unable to get updates on active situations as they're unfolding, Smith fears both the public and his first responders could be at risk of life-threatening danger.
It's a concern other first responding agencies share with Smith, including Fort Collins Police Services.
"It can be an officer safety issue," said Justin Allar, Director of Information Technologies for FCPS.
Both Allar and Smith said the lack of reliable coverage throughout the city not only jeopardizes the safety of first responders but also puts in question whether or not those in need of emergent help will be able to call for it.
"If the citizen can't reach our 911 call center in an emergency, that is a grave risk," Allar said.
The 911 dispatch centers for Fort Collins and Larimer County have a difficult time deciphering if 911 calls are dropped by the lack of signal, or if a disconnection was caused by the caller.
However, both agencies acknowledged that poor coverage throughout the city could be a factor in dropped 911 calls.
"It is a problem that we are aware of," said Will Lindsey, planner for the City of Fort Collins. "Cellular signal is spotty throughout Fort Collins."
Lindsey admitted the city is not only aware of how poor the signal is in many areas, but also admitted that a major reason the coverage isn't there is because of a code they enforce.
"A lot of that has to do with our zoning requirements," Lindsey said. "There are certain places in the city where we don't currently allow a freestanding tower, and that has really impacted service."
Decades ago, when cell phone towers first started popping up, the community vocalized their distaste for the appearance of the towers.
Residents told the city they felt the towers were outright ugly, some calling them an eyesore to the charm associated with the northern Colorado city.
To preserve the look of the city a zoning code was created that significantly limited not only where towers could be built, but also outlined strict instructions on how the towers must look to those below.
The city wanted as few towers as possible and most of those that were built needed to visually match the look of the area around them. Height restrictions were implemented in most cases, as were limitations on how close towers could be to neighborhoods.
"In a lot of ways, it was an overcorrection to (the non-disguised towers) that put us where we are currently. Now we are turning the dials to say, 'We went so far in the other direction, now we have to step back and think of this again,'" Lindsey said.
Due to the existing regulations in Fort Collins only around 30 free-standing towers exist in the city of more than 168,000 residents. Fort Collins has also limited the height of most new buildings in the city which means there are only a handful of buildings that are tall enough to put towers on top of.
And tall buildings are already peppered with transmitters and receivers from multiple carriers.
"When you are a community like ours where a lot of tall buildings do not exist then that is even more constraining," Lindsey said.
In 2018, the city conducted a study into cell service issues throughout Fort Collins. In doing so, they were able to better identify where the population has outgrown the availability of signal while also identifying why dead zones exist.
Now, while they await the opportunity to revise codes, Lindsey and his team are looking into ways they can expand Fort Collins' coverage to meet modern standards without jeopardizing the look and vibe that makes Fort Collins such a lovely place for many residents.
Linsey said the city is now considering allowing companies to build towers closer to residential areas so long as they can be disguised and placed in a way that isn't jarring to those who work and live nearby.
"If there is something like a church and they want to propose a tower, we will consider that," Lindsey said. "How do we do this in a way that we don't lose what makes Fort Collins unique? We are stuck in between a rock and a hard place."
Lindsey said the city plans to remodel its development code to make way for more coverage.
However, he said he doesn't think the coming alterations will make building towers simplistic and quick for providers. He said the providers will still be on the hook for trying to make the towers as disguised as possible.
"I think, in this community, the aesthetics part is always going to win out and we are always going to push hard on that," Lindsey said.
Lindsey said revisioning the code and rolling out the new towers could take more than five years to complete.
While Fort Collins works on redrawing their codes, Fort Collins Police Services says it is taking action itself to fix the problem as best as possible. Allar said FCPS isn't waiting for the city to build more towers.
"(The officers') ability to do their jobs effectively would be at risk," Allar said. "(Fixing the problem) is paramount. All of their tools rely on these critical services."
To combat the issue, FCPS is investing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to try and upgrade their police laptops to a server that will increase connectivity.
Laptops and patrol vehicles are slowly being upgraded with software that allows computers to switch between different cell phone providers, picking up whichever provider has the strongest signal in the area.
The software also has the ability to combine the low signal from multiple providers to increase overall connectivity.
"That way if one carrier doesn't have effective coverage it bounces over to the other one," Allar said.
However, completing the upgrade is costly.
"It's about $4,000 per vehicle," Allar said.
FCPS has found a different carrier and incentive programs to help cut costs. But, with more than 200 vehicles in their fleet, FCPS still plans to spend upward of $598,000 to assure their officers have the best signal possible under the city's current signal. City Council approved the budget for the police department to upgrade the vehicles, in a process that is expected to take months to complete. Some vehicles have already had the software installed.
"This is a necessary device that is needed," Allar said.
John Feyen, Sheriff-elect for Larimer County, will have to decide whether or not his agency will use funds to do a similar upgrade to their vehicles and laptops.
Current sheriff, Justin Smith, said upgrades would come at a significant cost to the agency that does not have as much access to funding.
"Those are very expensive. We are easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to make that shift," Smith said. "In order to do that are you going to lay off personnel? Where does that money come from?"
Smith said the issue is not as prevalent in some other towns and cities within Larimer County.
However, his agency is more heavily relied upon in Fort Collins. He said the purchase of upgraded systems doesn't fix the problem. Rather, it simply only temporarily helps first responders and not the general public.
"This needs to be solved. And us trying to patch it is not truly solving the issue, it is putting a patch on it," Smith said.
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