When a 150-foot tower supporting wireless antennas rose unannounced in a Jacksonville, Fla., neighborhood last year, residents went ballistic. Under intense public pressure, the company InterCel was forced to take the tower down a month later. In a suburban Philadelphia town, a private company went through 16 zoning hearings, only to be denied a permit for a cellular tower. Lacking ordinances that address the health and aesthetic issues of antennas, local officials in more than 150 communities across the country have issued moratoriums on the construction of PCS towers.
As Congress finally passed the Telecommunications Act last year, most attention focused on competition, open video systems, universal service and the V-chip. Few took notice that the Telecommunications Act, in essence, mandated the construction of a national wireless telecommunications infrastructure to consist of more than 100,000 antennas spread across the country.
Byron West, president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), called wireless tower construction the biggest issue to face local governments with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. "That part of the act has really impacted local government," she said. "Tower siting is a major concern."
The act prevents cities from adopting regulations, ordinances and laws that prohibit towers in their communities, while giving them the right to adopt policies governing where towers can be located, their appearance and procedures for processing antenna permits.
So what's the big deal about a few towers? Quite a lot, actually. In a series of auctions run by the U.S. government, more than 100 companies spent a total of $22 billion on licenses giving them the right to offer digital wireless services -- known as personal communications services (PCS) -- that will enable anyone to make calls, receive paging messages, send faxes and e-mail, and even access the World Wide Web.
The country already has one wireless service -- cellular -- which built 17,000 antennas in 13 years. But PCS companies want to build more than 100,000 antennas over the next nine years. Why so many towers? Beside being versatile, PCS requires less power to operate than cellular service, but has a shorter range. Instead of needing an antenna every six to 12 miles, PCS antennas must be no farther than six miles apart, and much closer in urban areas.
Caught Off Guard
Having spent enormous sums for radio spectrum licenses, PCS firms are in a hurry to sell their services and start earning a return on their investment. In order to do that, they need antennas up quickly. Local governments, caught off guard by the scope of the next-generation wireless infrastructure, lack the policies to accommodate the proliferation of wireless towers and related facilities.
Mark J. Bennett, managing director for EDR Telecom, a telecommunications research and publishing company, said that cities have been blind-sided by the act's rapid deregulation of the airwaves. Most cities, according to Bennett, have zoning ordinances that cannot incorporate the land-use requirements of wireless networks without some kind of amendment. As a result, they are using the moratorium to delay construction until they review and update their ordinances.
NATOA's West agreed that local governments are trying to buy time to review and update their ordinances. "The problem right now is a time issue," said West. "The time in which the industry wants to get started is not the same time frame for local governments."
NATOA's position is that local governments need ordinances that encourage competition for PCS while meeting community mandates that require government officials to ensure the safety and well-being of their citizens. "Local governments also need to address other citizen concerns," added West, "especially the location of towers, so that cities don't end up looking like some power utility yard."
Not surprisingly, the PCS industry would like to see cities speed up their decision-making process. "We're extremely concerned about