The Telecommunications Act of 1996 ushered in an unprecedented explosion of new telecommunications services, along with a myriad of new companies in the emerging personal communications services (PCS) industry. The old telephony companies -- AT&T, MCI and Sprint -- are finding competition in these arenas from new names such as PrimeCo, Nextel, NextWave and Airtouch. Some of these new companies have very deep pockets, although many are cash-strapped and highly leveraged.
The old and new have common traits. They all want to build antenna towers within city and county jurisdictions, and bring with them foreign terms and acronyms. They also take great liberty in their legal interpretation of the Telecommunications Act, leaving most local governments bewildered.
Local governments counter with NIMBYs and LULUs ("Not In My Back Yard," and "Locally Unpopular Land Use," respectively), and all sorts of zoning variance terminology and public-sector mumbo jumbo. Because of the confusion and resulting resistance, the PCS industry often fails to gain acceptance of its antenna networks.
A line has been drawn in the sand. On one side is the PCS industry; on the other, local governments. Though both share the common goal of providing better service to the community, each has drastically different motivations.
Local governments are concerned with fair treatment for the industry without compromising their duty to preserve the community's best interest. Achieving that goal sometimes entails compromises and, on occasion, calls for pacifying vocally irate citizens.
The motivation of the private sector is the essence of simplicity: Maximize profits and improve business acumen. At this stage of PCS infancy, the goal is completion of antenna build-outs so that the industry can get on with marketing services. That's what their shareholders and/or parent companies want and demand.
Of course, to say that all jurisdictions are having problems with the PCS industry would not be fair, and in fact, would be wrong. Some jurisdictions have worked out amicable agreements with their local providers (to date, anyway), and others are simply too remote or too small to have significant problems. There are some jurisdictions with good cellular/PCS coverage who have no problems because they do not have antenna structures within their boundaries. Some local governments have negotiated lucrative contracts. These are the exceptions.
Most local governments had or are having many problems. One such case is Coconut Creek, Fla., whose city manager, John Kelly, is very knowledgeable about the wireless industry. Kelly held a meeting with a local PCS provider to discuss its antenna requirements and zoning variance request. At the conclusion of the meeting, he informed the PCS representatives that he and his staff needed more time to address the issues, identify the options and decide the city's best course of action. He advised them that the city would be imposing a temporary moratorium on antenna siting. Following the moratorium, the city would either approve or deny the company's antenna permit requests. So far so good.
However, the private-sector representatives left the meeting and, after a brief caucus, went directly to the zoning and permitting office, where they advised the department staff they had just come from a meeting with the city manager and he wanted them to issue their permits immediately. Bad move. Not only unethical, but an action sure to create lasting bad will.
Unfortunately, the Coconut Creek story is not unique. Another Florida jurisdiction experienced an equally brazen PCS action. A different PCS company contracted with a local school board to lease space, and proceeded to erect a freestanding, 150-foot antenna tower. The company failed to obtain a permit before proceeding, even though the jurisdiction had a long-standing ordinance that limits antenna heights to 80 feet or less without a permit. The provider, the school board, the jurisdiction and citizens are still debating and threatening legal