Telecom Act Hits the Road to Mixed Reviews

The 1996 Telecommunications Act brought competition and congestion to the field as companies jockey for antenna sites.

by / July 31, 1997
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 moratoria on wireless tower construction," said Sheldon Moss, government relations manager for the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA). He agreed with West that cities are trying to buy themselves some time to develop communications policies and that, for the most part, PCS companies are working collaboratively with local governments to find equitable solutions.

As proof of the relatively congenial relationship between industry and government, Moss pointed to the relatively low number of moratoria in the country -- only 150 or more out of 28,000 local jurisdictions with some sort of land-use decision-making authority.

But the tower issue may just be emerging. So far, most estimates for the number of towers needed stands around 100,000. Yet some experts believe that number is conjecture. According to figures from Kreines & Kreines Inc., a telecommunications consulting firm based in California, there may eventually be as many as 250,000 cell sites -- areas with wireless coverage that require some sort of antenna -- needed in the United States.

Emotional Issues: Property & Health

What upset residents in Jacksonville, Fla. -- and other communities where PCS companies have started to "build-out" coverage -- is the construction of looming towers to support antennas that transmit broadband and narrowband PCS. Putting these towers in sensitive areas set off emotional alarms in many communities. EDR Telecom's Bennett described the reaction to the towers in some neighborhoods as "akin to Superfund sites with the requisite claims of decreased property value and health concerns."

Intense emotional responses to tower sitings are on the rise, according to local officials. "People get real aggravated about ordinary utility boxes," said Brenda Trainor, manager of regional telecommunications in the Las Vegas area. With PCS just getting started in that part of the country, she wondered what the reaction will be like when towers start going up in neighborhoods.

PCIA believes the emotional concerns that have erupted around the country are just that -- emotions and nothing else. According to Moss, there's just no hard evidence to support the claim that property values drop when a communications structure is built near a neighborhood. Still, the industry isn't ignoring the complaints. Where possible, they are using monopoles to support the antennas instead of the more ungainly looking lattice towers that are often used to support radio and television antennas.

Some companies use camouflage techniques to disguise poles in especially sensitive areas, such as historic districts. That's what the SBC Communications Corp. did when it won approval from Fairfax County, Va., to install a wireless tower at George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. Hidden among the real trees on the estate is a wireless tower made of simulated branches, leaves and bark.

Other examples include clock towers and bell towers that can house antennas. The problem with these structures is that they are not cheap. In cities, antennas are sprouting up on top of apartments and office buildings. In other areas, they are being placed inside tall gas station and restaurant signs. Some companies have offered to build night lights for school athletic fields free of charge if, in return, they are allowed to build the towers higher than usual to support antennas.

Some cities are encouraging PCS companies to place antennas on existing structures to avoid ugly confrontations over towers. San Jose, Calif., has streamlined its regulations to speed up the approval process for antennas that are placed on existing buildings, while keeping in place its more cumbersome regulations for traditional, free-standing towers. Another solution is to co-locate antennas from different companies onto the same tower.

Perhaps the biggest issue concerning wireless towers shouldn't be an issue at all, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Congress and the wireless industry. Under the direction of Capitol Hill, the FCC has issued a set of human exposure guidelines that regulates the maximum permissible radio emissions at transmitter sites. According to the PCIA, these guidelines were developed by the American National Standards Institute and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, in conjunction with the National Council on Radiation Protection and Management. All communications carriers are obliged to follow these guidelines.

In addition, the Telecommunications Act mandates that local governments do not have the authority to make antenna siting decisions based on the environmental effect of RF (radio frequency) emissions. "In other words," said Moss, "RF emissions are technically not an issue."

But it's an issue that won't just go away. Just recently, a study published in Radiation Research, a scholarly journal, raised concerns about the effects of RF radiation generated by cellular phones. Still, most experts agree that the radiation produced by cell phones is too low to constitute a health threat. PCIA's Moss claims that a "vocal minority" has succeeded in keeping this issue alive, despite the lack of concern in Washington.

Taking Action

While many cities ponder their predicament, a number have taken action to try and control the situation. After working closely with the wireless industry, the city of Denver passed ordinances addressing the needs of PCS companies and the concerns of its citizens, according to West, who is also the city's director of television.

The city of San Jose actually began preparing for the upheaval of the Telecommunications Act prior to its passage. In 1996, it created the position of telecommunications director, which is currently held by Pamela Jacobs. One of her jobs is helping develop a municipal telecommunications master plan. According to Jacobs, the plan will address everything from ordinances for PCS to leasing city conduit.

In the Las Vegas region, concerns about the changing telecommunications landscape led to the hiring of Brenda Trainor as a regional telecom manager. Part of her task is creating a dialogue on the subject of telecommunications and what's best for the Las Vegas area. "Local governments need to engage their community on the issues that the Telecommunications Act ... has created," she said. "They can't do that by issuing a moratorium."

Trainor added that the changes brought on by the act have made politicians nervous, but reacting negatively only hurts in the long run. Her tools for fending off problems with business include partnerships, greater amounts of education on the issues and comprehensive planning.

As president of NATOA, West said she has yet to hear a city say they don't want PCS services. What they need is information and the time to make sound decisions. Some have tried to create shortcuts by adopting someone else's ordinances. West believes that approach is a recipe for trouble. "You need to go through the outreach and dialogue process with the community and the industry first," she said.

Meanwhile, time marches on. "The act has been passed, the spectrum has been sold and the companies want to move," said West. "Cities need to get their ducks into a row as quickly as they can."

For more information, call Pamela Jacobs at 408/277-4717.