Network Capacity and Cell Towers
11.01.2012 by Andrew M. Seybold
The bottom line is still this: If we want expanded cell phone coverage, if we want service where calls are not dropped and data rates don’t slide down to almost nothing due to congestion within a cell sector or a number of cell sectors, more sites will have to be built.
In 2005 I wrote a white paper entitled, “The Big Question, Why Do We Need More Cell Sites?” and I republished it in August of 2011. It was aimed at municipal governments and many of the wireless operators used it to help them educate local planning commissions, city councils, and county supervisors. The thrust of the paper was that we will see more and more cell sites as demand for wireless services continues to increase. My suggestion to these governments was to stop acting on cell site requests one by one and to develop a citywide or countywide plan, publishing guidelines for both the wireless providers and the citizens in the area.
Since the paper was first published, not much has changed when it comes to planning commissions and permitting towers. Recently I noticed an increase in the number of neighborhood organizations that are organizing, and in some cases, hiring attorneys to fight new cell towers in their areas. The Federal Government prohibits local jurisdictions from turning down a permit request due to health concerns and more recently (2009), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed what is called a “shot clock.” The FCC ruled that local jurisdictions had to act on an application from a wireless network operator within 80 days if the request is to co-locate on an existing tower and 150 days for new sites or other applications. The shot clock ruling says that locals must act on, it does not say must issue a permit, so the application can be turned down. The shot clock has been ineffective because the time can be extended by agreement of the parties involved.
According to recent reports, broadband usage grew more than 100% over the past year and is slated to grow at the same rate this coming year. Network operators are scrambling to build new sites and to off-load data using femtocells and Wi-Fi hotspots. Meanwhile, the FCC and NTIA are trying to come up with more spectrum for auction so commercial network operators can have more spectrum, meaning more capacity. Even when this spectrum is made available, it will require building or modifying more cell sites to make way for new antennas in different portions of the spectrum and new cell stations located in the sites. The antenna industry has been a great help by developing antennas that cover multiple spectrum bands so network operators, in many cases, can simply change out antennas to add more spectrum. However, many jurisdictions require a permit even to exchange antennas.
The bottom line is still this: If we want expanded cell phone coverage, if we want service where calls are not dropped and data rates don’t slide down to almost nothing due to congestion within a cell sector or a number of cell sectors, more sites will have to be built. Further, those that have already been built will have to be modified or updated to provide for multiple network operators, which means that there will be more antennas on each site. If local planners continue to require that new sites be presented to them one at a time, spend several meetings discussing the merits, and listening to the general public discuss health issues without understanding that health concerns cannot be used to deny a permit, the process will continue to drag on, customers will become more and more frustrated, and we will continue to inch along as we are today.
I believe it is past time to improve the process. Improvement will require educating the citizens in the area, working with the planning commissions and providing them with a look into each network’s future requirements, and finding other ways to streamline the process. Some of these tasks are daunting to be sure. When it comes to educating the public, one of the issues I see at the hearings I attend is that only those few who oppose new cell sites show up for the hearings and they are very vocal. Those who understand the need for more sites generally do not attend. A few years ago when one of the network operators was preparing to deploy a new cell site to cover my area, it mailed a flyer to each resident, asked for support, and urged citizens to mail an enclosed, prepaid post card addressed to the planning commission if they supported the project. When we got to the hearing, the vocal opponents were there as usual, but the planners had four times as many “yes” cards they had received in the mail or via email. This network operator also went to several different homeowners association meetings, presented the design, and answered questions, thereby gaining the support of the homeowners associations. The health issues keep surfacing, but I know of one San Diego company that has proposed that it act as an independent third party, test RF radiation at each site, and provide a detailed analysis of the results. The test results I have seen clearly show that the only RF exposure danger zones are within a few feet of the antennas and these results could be used to help sway some of the more vocal residents in given areas.
Working with the planning commissions is tougher. I have tried this several times along with network operators. The object was to have the operators come to the table, one at a time, and show on a map of the area where they thought they would need to develop new sites in the next few years. This was not intended to be a binding commitment but a sincere effort to help planners understand what was coming their way over the course of the next few years. As it turned out, only one of the network operators was willing to participate in these meetings. The others said they were afraid their competitors would have access to the information and use it to their benefit. Another thing we tried was to suggest to the network operators that when developing their search rings they look first at city or county-owned facilities and see if any of these would work. In addition to coverage, this would provide a nice income stream to the local governments that could really use the money. In this case, the issue was not the network operators’ willingness to comply with this, but the city and county governments not being able to figure out which department(s) would receive the funds. Logic says the revenue should go into the general fund, but in this case the parks department wanted the income if the site was on its property, the road department if it was on its property, and so on.
One suggestion I have is based on my experience with the City of Santa Barbara, which, based on my recent experience, has to be one of the toughest cities in which to obtain any type of permit approval. We want to build a new house on a portion of our property that we split into a separate lot. However, instead of having to go to the full planning commission, the city requires that we go to a volunteer organization called the Single Family Review Board (SFRB). These are public hearings but the volunteer members are architects, designers, contractors, and even landscape architects. A member of the planning commission also sits in the meeting but does not have a vote. In the case of the house, these experts know the city, know the codes, and work with the architect and homeowner. If someone has an objection to the project he/she can show up and speak or send in an email or postal mail comment. The hearings are broadcast on the cable TV city channel. Once the SFRB is satisfied that the house meets the aesthetics of the neighborhood, meets the city’s stringent requirements for setbacks, etc., it approves the design. Once that happens, the next step is to submit the plans to the planning staff, not the planning commission, and work with the city engineers for final plan approval. None of this is done at the planning commission level.
What if a similar group was formed in a given city or county to address wireless network issues. I am sure there would be knowledgeable, impartial volunteers available to staff the organization. Each cell site would go in for review, a hearing would be held, and any changes made as suggested and agreed to by the network operator and the board. Then the planning staff would work with the network operator or its contractor on the technical details of the site. I think this would still give the public an opportunity to discuss the site, but those on the review board would be more knowledgeable about cellular-specific issues that are most often beyond the grasp of planning commissions and general citizenry. Just as the SFRB is made up of building experts, these review boards could be made up of people familiar with radio systems, cell systems, and radio frequencies. There are, I am sure, people like that in every city and county of the United States, many of whom are retired and would welcome the opportunity to serve. I also believe that this would reduce the time it would take to obtain a permit or at least approval for a site and everyone would benefit.
Wireless growth will continue, more people will give up their landline phones, and more people will rely on wireless phones for voice, data, video, and other services. Dealing with cell sites one at a time makes little or no sense. Facing the same group of people who are misinformed about the safety and health hazards is not productive, and involving planning commissions that generally lack specific knowledge about the nuances of wireless technologies make this process tedious and drawn out. It does not have to be this way. I know that the CTIA’s policy is to not become involved in local politics and that it represents the wireless networks, but it seems to me as though it would be an ideal organization to launch an educational campaign surrounding the issues of cell site placement and safety.
If the industry does not become more proactive on a local level, we will repeat what we have seen so far. Needed cell sites will continue to take up to three years to locate, plan, design, and implement. With broadband service demand growing at more than 100% year over year and the lack of new spectrum for at least the next three to five years, it behooves everyone who is invested in wireless, including customers, to push to implement changes to this process.
Andrew M. Seybold