Why Franklin Mountains Tower System Is Raising “Massive Concern” Among Government Agencies, Law Enforcement, Elected Leaders, City, and Television Stations | Local News
Along the highest ridge of the Franklin Mountains is a network of towers that support federal, state, and local government communications – including national security and emergency broadcast messages – but it does not been serviced for over three years as repairs to the Wyler overhead tram are not funded. .
The streetcar, which closed in September 2018 for safety reasons, was the only means of transporting equipment to the two communication towers erected at Ranger Peak, the highest point of the Franklin Mountains at 5,600 feet above the level of the sea.
“We haven’t done any upgrades or updates or worked on these towers. Usually we do the maintenance, especially with as many carriers as we have there, ”said Robert Pizorno, regional director of government affairs for Crown Castle, which owns these communications towers. “Our concern is that if something happens and we have to get there and do a repair right away, we don’t have that capacity,” he said.
On this mountain ridge – currently accessed primarily by a 2,000-foot climb through a trail of cacti, desert, and boulders – are towers that provide communications infrastructure to 18 entities, including five federal government agencies, one Texas agency, the city of El Paso, six broadcasting companies and a university, according to a document created by Crown Castle to educate lawmakers reviewing the streetcar’s request for credits during the third special session of the Legislative Assembly of Texas.
The amendment to fund streetcar repairs was drafted and submitted for consideration to the House floor, but was subsequently withdrawn from consideration, ending the chances of getting money for the tram during this session.
“Whatever the outcome, there is still an incredible need to secure funding for the streetcar,” read a statement released on Nov. 18 by Forma Public Affairs, the registered lobbyist for Crown Castle.
At the request of lawmakers who have cited national security concerns, El Paso Inc. does not release the names of federal and state agencies that have communications capabilities in the Franklin Mountain Towers.
“There are many concerns about the disrupted communications affecting key agencies in the United States,” Pizorno said.
Crown Castle, which owns more than 40,000 cell phone towers in the United States, provides a communications infrastructure for data, technology and wireless services used by consumers, communities and governments. The company employs approximately 5,000 people in nearly 100 of the country’s largest markets.
Texas State Representative Lina Ortega, whose District 77 includes the Ranger Peak towers, helped secure $ 10 million of the estimated $ 35 million needed to repair and upgrade the streetcar. Ortega said she was hesitant to discuss details of the towers’ role in law enforcement communication, but acknowledged that their essential role extends beyond radio and television broadcasts and wireless services. General public.
“These communication towers are used by anyone in this border region who needs this type of tower for various reasons, including media broadcasting, as well as a security communication component,” she said. . “We are talking about border security.
“These towers are used on behalf of the police. It’s law enforcement – at the federal, state, and local levels – it’s at all levels. You don’t want to have a problem with that.
When asked if the lack of access to the towers was a threat to homeland security, State Representative James White, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, said: ” Yes, to the extent that we cannot access it. towers and can’t do proper maintenance, yes absolutely.
White was the author of the unsuccessful amendment to fully fund the Wyler streetcar project in the last extraordinary session.
“I am very concerned about a situation where we could see investigations compromised, and we can have them compromised by foreign actors,” he said.
The El Paso Police Department’s 911 communications infrastructure is also supported by equipment on the Franklin Mountains, said Laura Cruz-Acosta, spokesperson for the city of El Paso.
“Our emergency services (police, fire department, etc.) use the communication towers but only as a complement to our main radio system,” she said in an email. “Our emergency services use the P25 radio system,” which is a two-way radio technology that incorporates digital wireless technology for the transfer of voice and data.
“Regarding the maintenance of the towers, the city does not maintain the towers themselves,” said Cruz-Acosta. “However, all preventive maintenance on city equipment in the rental space was performed this year in July and October.”
Originally built by Karl O. Wyler and KTSM-TV in 1961 to help install the original broadcast tower, the tram was open to the public until 1986. The owner of the tram, Tri -State Media Company, has ended public operations of the park because of new liability issues.
At this point, the streetcar was owned by the El Paso Community Foundation, which in 1999 donated the streetcar and 170 acres of adjacent property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It renovates the tram and makes it available to the public again from 2001 to 2018.
Crown Castle completed the Wyler Aerial Tramway arrangement in 2007, signing an agreement with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to operate two towers on Ranger Peak. The only way to access the towers was by tram, which worked at the time.
In 2018, the tram was closed after engineers concluded it had exceeded its life expectancy and needed a major overhaul.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokeswoman Stephanie Salinas Garcia said the towers remained “accessible by motor vehicle and on foot via a trail in the park” and that “the streetcar was also used to transport equipment. “.
The technicians who maintain the broadcast television towers agree that the mountain is accessible by vehicle – a four-wheel-drive vehicle that will only take you halfway up. Then it’s “another hour, an hour and a half of hard walking” to the top of the mountain, according to a technician from KFOX Channel 14 who does the hike every time he has to get to work. The technician declined to be identified for the story.
Elias Ventanilla, chief engineer for KVIA Channel 7, said his main concern is the time it takes to reach the towers when emergency maintenance is needed.
“This is where our communication equipment is and without having access to the tram we have to go up there,” he said. “We need more time to restore things. Just to get up there, it takes a bit of planning, especially if it’s at night. There is no lighting on the path. You have to take your light. There is a risk of injury on any type of hike.
Officials at El Paso TV station are also concerned about the lack of access to the towers.
“We have huge concerns. You can’t properly maintain (communication towers), ”said KVIA-TV CEO Kevin Lovell. “For a long time, we could not get accurate readings from electricity meters. Now we have to go up there and take pictures and deliver them to the power company. This sort of thing is totally untenable, and we’ve been going there for at least three years. “
He added: “One of our main tasks is to broadcast the emergency alert, and if the electricity fails on the mountain, which it does on occasion, then we cannot restore. electricity. It is very difficult to go up there. You literally have to climb the side of the mountain.
David Candelaria, vice president and general manager of KTSM-TV, is also concerned about the stability of the emergency broadcast signal during an unforeseen technical problem or power outage.
“We hope that at this point nothing drastic will happen,” he said. “If you have to replace an antenna or a generator or something like that, it has to be done by helicopter and it adds a huge expense and burden to everyone.
“Unfortunately, that’s where we are right now. I think if we all come together and put pressure on the people on the streetcar, we can do something. “
Pizorno said his biggest concern is the possible disruption of government communication that exists if the towers encounter a problem. “It’s like the officers are communicating with each other and communicating with the command. Right now the only way to know if something went wrong is if it goes wrong, ”he said.
“The biggest takeaway is that it’s not just a tourist tram. This is not a willy-nilly, frivolous spending streetcar for a streetcar that people will use to take in the view from the mountain, ”he said. “The big point to remember is the need to access these towers, which is of national communication interest for the country and the state. “
Representative White said he was working with the El Paso delegation to find ways to secure the total funding of $ 35 million required for the full streetcar upgrade.