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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cellular Phones

Air Date: Week of

The FCC says mobile phone companies can build relay towers wherever they please, just like electric companies’ transmission wires. But some in Congress think cellular towers can be a blight on the landscape. Daniel Grossman reports from Boston.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you want to put up a structure, you need a building permit, and you usually get it from your local city hall. But the Federal Communications Commission is trying to eliminate local control of permits to build cellular phone towers. The FCC says mobile phone companies should be able to build relay towers wherever they please, just as electric companies can't be stopped from stringing wires by local authorities. But there are some in Congress who think these towers can be a blight on the landscape. A vote on a measure that would preserve local control and block the FCC proposal is expected shortly. Reporter Daniel Grossman has more.

(Hammering sounds, construction vehicles)

GROSSMAN: On a construction site south of Boston, a crew is building the foundation for a 150-foot tower. When completed, an antenna mounted on top will improve mobile phone service to this community and to commuters on a nearby highway. It's a story repeated every day across the country. Thousands of antennas are being hoisted aloft to improve reception to the country's 30 million mobile phones. Many are inconspicuously bolted to buildings, but others sit atop tall steel towers, looming 100 feet or more above the landscape.

EAD: They're tall, and they're ugly.

GROSSMAN: John Ead, chairman of the department that oversees Boston's zoning code, has a panoramic view from his downtown office. Looking out, he says these towers are a threat to the visual integrity of his city.

EAD: You wouldn't want to live with one. I don't want to live with one. And the residents of the city of Boston have been pretty clear they don't want these hanging -- and I mean literally -- hanging over their heads.

GROSSMAN: Unlike radio and television transmitters, which generally broadcast a powerful signal from the top of a single tall tower, a cellular phone signal is broadcast from a spread-out network of low-power antennas. Phone companies divide each city into a patchwork of cells, a sort of checkerboard with irregular boundaries, each with its own antenna. As customers move from cell to cell, a call is transferred or handed off seamlessly from one antenna to the next. But industry analysts say the nation's 20,000 existing antennas can't keep up with demand for mobile phones. They say by the end of the decade, 100,000 more will be needed. Many will be mounted on tall, slender towers, sometimes called monopoles. So last October, Boston adopted regulations to protect the appearance of this tidy city. John Ead.

EAD: What we're concerned about is that technology today does not become a burden tomorrow. And this is always the trade-off with technology, I think, everywhere. We're not saying no cellular communication, no monopoles. But how do we accommodate the technology in a way that we can live with it and it visually and physically enhances our city?

GROSSMAN: Boston's rules strictly regulate the location and appearance of the antennas. Cincinnati, San Diego, Dallas, and other cities have taken similar steps. But industry experts say rules like these can delay the expansion of cellular networks, possibly with serious consequences.

SHOSTECK: But suppose that this delay happens and it's winter and you are stuck in a snow bank, and you're half a mile from a house? If it's any kind of reasonable blizzard, it would be fatal to try to go that half a mile to the next, to where you know a house is even if you could see the way. You'd freeze to death.

GROSSMAN: Telecommunications analyst Hershel Shosteck says mobile phone firms should be granted special authority to build where necessary, just like suppliers of other essential services, such as water and electricity.

SHOSTECK: You can't stop electricity being delivered to your house, or you can't stop water being delivered to your house, because somebody doesn't want the electric wire or the water pipe to go through their property. So the cellular industry is saying if you need a cell site in a particular place to cover a particular area, if the cell site isn't where it has to be you're not going to get service in that area.

GROSSMAN: Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission began writing rules that would have stripped city halls of the power to regulate phone towers. Congress responded by inserting a provision in the new telecommunications bills to protect local authority. Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia says the legislation preserves the rights of average citizens to play a role in shaping how their cities look.

GOODLATTE: They will have the opportunity to go down to their city council or county government, sit right in front of their elected representatives, express their point of view on the issue, and watch as they vote where they think a particular monopole or one of these towers should be located, and where they should not be located. The right of the people to be heard on the issue has been protected.

GROSSMAN: Still, the new legislation would subject local decisions on the towers to judicial review, and would require that decisions be made without unreasonable delay. Industry analyst Hershel Shosteck calls these provisions a judicious compromise, but Boston's John Ead says the compromise is too generous to telecommunications companies.

EAD: I fear that what this is intended to do on the part of the industry is to make reviewing of their proposals as intimidating and as costly as absolutely as possible for them to make it.

(Construction sounds)

GROSSMAN: If one thing's certain, it's that more towers like this one south of Boston will surely be built. What's less clear is how the nation's thirst for new ways to talk and to listen will be balanced by the desire to protect the look of our communities. For Living on Earth in Boston, this is Daniel Grossman.



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