Fights over cell towers could affect service
Dec 22, 2012 (Sun Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Your smart phone requires 35 times the wireless capacity of your old phone. Your tablet sucks up even more, with web surfing, video conferencing and instant messaging making enormous demands on systems originally established to handle telephone calls.
As land lines start going the way of cassette tapes, Verizon, T-Mobile and other companies are busily putting up more antennas and towers around the country. These are not always popular, as current neighborhood opposition to a proposed Motorola emergency communications tower in Plantation makes clear. But the wireless industry says a failure to put up enough antennas could mean more dropped calls, frozen screens and an inability to keep up with whatever data-hogging devices arrive in the future.
"The concern is that it very much can affect service," said Brian Josef, assistant vice president for regulatory affairs of the Cellular Telephone Industry Association. "People are utilizing more and increasingly sophisticated wireless devices. At the end of the day, the demand for wireless service is growing and we want to be able to offer the best service we can."
But several South Florida cities have rejected proposals for wireless towers, with residents opposing them on aesthetic grounds, to preserve property values or for perceived health threats. The wireless industry has fought back, and next month the Supreme Court will hear a case over whether the Federal Communication Commission can force local governments to approve or deny cell tower applications within a set period of time.
Deerfield Beach rejected a 90-foot Nextel tower that would have stood in a city park. Wellington rejected a 120-foot tower that would have gone up in a golf course. The Palm Beach County School District, which leases 10 antenna sites to wireless companies, this year reaffirmed a ban on new ones because of health concerns.
"It is beyond difficult to place towers," said Perry Adair, a lawyer with Becker & Poliakoff, who has represented wireless companies in disputes over towers in several South Florida cities. "People come to meetings to object to them with cell phones hanging on their belts, sometimes more than one."
Miramar turned down a proposal by T-Mobile for a 100-foot tower that would have doubled as a flagpole, after residents submitted a 250-signature petition claiming it would be an eyesore.
"We didn't want them to put it right in the middle of a residential community," said resident Cecile Fountain, who said there were already several antennas in the area. "Even though they tell us there's no health issue over cancer, we didn't want them coming back 10 years down the line and saying "Sorry, we were wrong.'"
Wireless companies are still able to build towers. Dozens stand in South Florida cities, many disguised as light poles, flag poles and pine trees. And most new cell antennas go on existing towers or on buildings, such as condominium towers on the beach.
Boca Raton, scene of a long dispute among neighborhoods and the telecommunications industry over where to locate new antennas and towers, has about two dozen, said deputy city manager George Brown. Among these is a "stealth" tower just east of Military Trail at Potomac Road that looks -- sort of -- like a pine tree. Verizon is talking with the city about a tower at University Woodlands Park that would look like a light pole, only fatter.
In Coral Springs, the dozen or so towers, which include a fake pine tree at Riverside Drive and Sample Road, bring in bit more than $1 million for leasing city property. "It's a good moneymaker for the city," said Angelo Salamone, the city's purchasing administrator.
In Weston a 100-foot tower that had been opposed by some residents on aesthetic grounds turned out to be pretty unobtrusive -- just a plain gray pole.
"The reason people initially had a problem with it was they thought it would be unsightly," said Matthew Zifrony, president of the Savanna Homeowners Association. "But it's not one of those towers where you see antennas sticking out. I know back then my cell phone service wasn't nearly as good as it is now. I don't know if it's related to the tower or it's a coincidence."
The need for more capacity extends to emergency service communications, which uses data and devices that go way beyond the old 911 system for routing emergency calls. The tower proposed by Motorola in Plantation would serve several cities and Broward County. Many residents of the adjacent neighborhood oppose it, citing the potential impact on health, aesthetics and property values.
"Clearly it's going to be an eyesore," said Donna Levine, who lives in the adjacent Marcano Estates neighborhood. "The property values, more than likely, will diminish." And she said she's worried about the impact on health, having read studies linking wireless communications towers to cancer.
Wireless antennas emit a weak form of electromagnetic radiation, the same radiation that at more intense levels makes up visible light. Two German studies have found higher incidences of cancer and other illnesses among people living close to the towers. But a 2010 study by Imperial College of London's School of Public Health examined all childhood cancers in Britain over a three-year period and found no increased risk. The American Cancer Society says a cancer link is "unlikely." The Environmental Protection Agency says more research is needed.
At the urging of the wireless industry, which said local governments were dragging out decisions, the Federal Communications Commission in 2009 adopted a rule requiring local governments to act within 150 days. Cities and counties filed legal challenges, and the case has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has scheduled oral arguments Jan. 16.
"Zoning is a quintessential local function," said Joseph Van Eaton, of the law firm of Best Best & Krieger, which represents the local governments.
Verizon spokesman Chuck Hamby said the company is trying to put up new antennas, but new technologies may reduce the pressure. The new 4G technological standard for wireless devices is more efficient, putting less demand on the system, he said.
"With 4G, there's less need for sites," he said. "Of course, that's offset by the demand for service."
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