When Wireless Comes Calling ...

Telecommunications reform unleashed a multitude of wireless companies, all looking for antenna tower sites.

by / May 31, 1997
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 action.

Meanwhile, another school leased an antenna site in the middle of its playground. Revenues from the site are great, but there has been wholesale withdrawal of children by parents because of safety concerns. It appears the FCC's assurance that "in-spec" antennas present no health risk does not pass some parent's litmus test for acceptable risk.

Sometimes revenue is the issue. Bob Noe, city manager of Tamarac, Fla., wants the city to be a good corporate partner. Earlier this year his staff noticed that PrimeCo was installing antennas on light poles. Although the poles belong to the local utility company, FP&L, the city felt the utility company violated their right-of-way (ROW) lease agreement by not first negotiating a new agreement that would share revenues received from PrimeCo.

There is a need to develop better corporate partner relations, as issues involving ROW are still being discussed, argued and litigated around the country. Feelings of betrayal and deception on the part of all parties continue to grow. Although the cited examples are in Florida, similar war stories abound across the country from city managers and their telecommunications staff. Problems often start with a massive communication breakdown, with both sides at fault.

Many jurisdictions do not have adequate staff to work out the unique requirements and demands of antenna siting. Without a strong information base, those jurisdictions are at the mercy of pushy salespersons, hysterical residents and sometimes naive council members or commissioners. Jurisdictions with capable, professional telecommunication experts on their staffs and with the situation in control are in the minority.

Common within the industry are independent site acquisition companies who represent PCS providers. They may be individuals, real-estate companies, or professional site negotiators. This adds up to a very mixed bag of agents local governments must deal with, but deal with them they must. There are bona fide and pressing needs for antenna sites if the private sector is to provide needed services.

The industry, however, must do a much better job of educating and working with local governments. At a meeting attended by scores of city and county representatives and several cellular/PCS representatives, an industry spokesperson made a presentation on behalf of the private sector. What occurred was a genuine misunderstanding of local government issues and expectations. The presenter spent most of his allotted time using condescending parables to pitch the merits and benefits of the wireless industry such as emergency calls, crime reporting and disaster control/mitigation. These are all worthy causes local governments already believe in, so the spokesperson was preaching to the choir. A much more effective approach would have been to address the issue at hand (antenna siting) and provide an honest, open discussion and suggest solutions.

What the future holds for us is hard to say. Spin doctors and soothsayers are predicting a major shakeout in the PCS industry within the next few years. It seems the market can only support about half the current players and alleged players. A possible complication might develop if the current PCS provider goes bankrupt and no one wants to take over their structure.

The Innovation Groups recently performed a market study for an antenna site management company. The conclusion was that the company should not enter into the local government marketplace, but instead, concentrate on the utility industry and commercial buildings for its antenna sites. One of the most influential factors was the lengthy public process of antenna siting -- as opposed to quick decisions by the private sector based on economic considerations. For this particular company, that made the most sense.

While antenna towers are here for the foreseeable future, there are some interesting technical developments on the horizon that could impact antenna siting. One such development is the contra-wound toroidal antenna, which reportedly requires only three feet of vertical space. Developed by the University of West Virginia and a Canadian company, it is undergoing independent field testing. If viable, it might replace towers.

Outsourcing is a possible solution for many jurisdictions. A site management company usually has a better understanding of the nuances of marketing co-location (multiple vendors' antennas on a common tower structure). Understanding the many variables of radio frequency requirements is critical to co-location success. It almost always involves compromises from the service providers and negotiating these concessions calls for a knowledgeable and aggressive strategy.

Are antenna towers really a problem? Yes, if they are next to residential property. One jurisdiction could have as many as 27 wireless companies providing service. If that happens, even co-location will not prevent antenna proliferation.

Les Branning is director of Technology and Corporate Services for The Innovation Groups, a nonprofit organization that serves 437 local governments in 23 states.

Branning wrote "Antenna Site Locations -- A Practical Guide for Local Officials" published by Government Technology Press.
For more information, call Lisa Thiel at 916/932-1300. E-mail: .

Telecommunications reform unleashed a multitude of wireless companies, all looking for antenna tower sites.