Operators seek faster review of cell tower proposals

Wireless network operators are pushing for faster consideration of cell tower construction applications in the U.S., urging that reviews be finished in 75 days.

The CTIA, which represents the major carriers, wants state and local regulatory bodies to make more timely cell tower decisions because of a sizable backlog of construction applications and a clear desire by many customers to have more cellular network coverage and reliability, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA.

Guttman-McCabe said a survey of carriers showed that 760 applications have taken more than a year to review, with half that number of applications under review bodies for more than three years.

At the CTIA’s fall conference here yesterday, the industry’s tower construction problem got some sympathy from a panel of regulators, including FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Larry Landis, a commissioner for the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Landis said in an interview. The biggest reason that towers can’t be approved faster is the pressure from local groups of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), he said. Sometimes the delays and opposition come from reluctant regulators, or NIMTIOs, or Not In My Term In Office, he added.

Adelstein said the federal government and the FCC have no right to tell states and local communities whether to build a tower in a certain location, but the FCC has a directive from Congress to provide cellular access to Americans in a timely manner.

“Maybe we have to tell state and local officials you have to make a decision,” Adelstein said.

Rod Wright, a former California assemblyman from Los Angeles, said towers are often opposed by neighbors in cities who worry about the dangers of cancer from exposure to electromagnetic radiation from towers.

But Adelstein, Landis and CTIA staff all said there has not been scientific evidence that heavy exposure to cell tower radiation harms human health. Adelstein said the FCC can regulate the amount of power generated by a cell tower, adding, “but as for health problems, there’s no proof of this.”

Wright said a federal standard on cell tower construction is needed to overcome disparate statutes in towns and cities. In Los Angeles, for example, cell towers cannot be built within 200 feet of a school boundary.

Landis said he is aware that many of the people opposing a cell tower in a neighborhood will be the first to object to dropped cell phone calls, which could be avoided with more towers.

Reforms to the nation’s Universal Service Fund, originally created to fund communications services in rural areas, were also discussed on the panel. Phone users pay into the USF on their phone bills.

Landis served on a joint FCC-state regulator task force that recommended USF reforms to take into account modern technology, such as wireless, which was not contemplated when the USF was established decades ago.

Adelstein and Landis both agreed that any reforms need to include recognition that wireless technology should be part of the way USF funds are spent.

Michael Small, CEO of Centenniel Wireless, said spending for projects in the USF grossly undercuts wireless, and that $3 billion was spent in a recent year for wireless rural projects while more than $30 billion was spent on wired technologies.

Wright said if the USF is reformed, it needs to recognize that some families will continue to prefer using a wired connection to their homes to make emergency calls. “Many people in my [former] district still have the black rotary phone,” he said.

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