And So the Wireless World Turns, or A Night at the Opera…
Warning: Drafted in haste! Please excuse the poor grammer, spelling, editting, etc...
Attended my first city planning function since moving to Peachtree City GA last night and it's easy to see how quickly things can get so far off the rails. With government and it’s citizens the micro definately reflects the macro and visa versa. The funny thing is: I believe all in attendance were acting ethically and with the best of intentions. Here’s my dispatch…
My city is actually a planned community established in the late 50’s, but it really came to life in the 70’s. It is a shinning example of how well this type of cooperative planned approach can and does work. The elected and appointed officials that make up our city government are NOT career politicians. They are mostly older city residents (cranky at times), but I believe that they have the city’s and it citizens best interest at heart. I also know one of the boards newly elected councilwomen personally and she is a long time friend of the family’s.
Given the contemptuous nature of cell tower siting within any community, and the technical complexity that overlays most of discussions, our City Council decided to host a “wireless workshop” for the publics benefit and education hosted by an industry lobbying group. Granted, I was hugely skeptical myself which made my attendance all the more compelling. I was bracing for dog and pony show put on by shills from the big four wireless telco’s, prepared to grit my teeth for the subsequent disappointment of discovering that they had already sowed the seeds of whatever their desires, and being introduced to a city council who had already been hoodwinked and bent to their whims.
I was wrong on all accounts. As the Mayor opened the meeting and I flipped through the slick professional PowerPoint deck the lobbying group had prepared, I was humbled to discover that my city is actually attempting to do this THE RIGHT WAY. The sole purpose of this meeting was to educate both government officials and any citizen who cared to turn up on the basics of wireless technology and the science of selecting tower transmission sites. The hosting group were well represented by a cross section of expertise in a wide range of disciplines within the industry. I was amazed at how honest the presentation was prepared and delivered. I was chomping at the bit to find flaw or spin and none came plain and simply.
The impetus for this workshop is the pending submission of permits and zoning variance requests associated with tower sites needed to improve service by all carriers in our fair city. Here are the facts of the current state:
- A year ago, T-Mobile approached our City Planning folks about the need for up to four new tower sites. This was wisely done in an informal fashion to avoid federally mandated approval timelines from being evoked. T Mobile is well aware of the planned nature of our community and acted in a manner of cooperation being all too familiar with the acrimony tower siting kicks up in any community especially one with many parks, a multitude of golf courses, miles of golf cart paths, etc... It would be easy for an outsider to think this was an end around play, but if you’re familiar with the Telecom Acts, you know that this would hurt more than help T Mobiles chances at getting a leg up. The City was transparent about the discussions anyway and they were duly reported.
- The city’s current ordinances that govern tower siting are actually in good shape. They are in need of a freshen up to incorporate changes in the wireless industry since the mid nineties when they were originally adopted, but pretty solid nonetheless.
- Unfortunately, the local paper with the best intentions has inadvertently printed several articles inferring that permits had been submitted and were currently under official review by the city. I’ve read every one of these articles and while they don’t use the words exactly, I can EASILY see how the everyday citizen could get the idea that the clock was ticking. I don’t think the reporter (who I met last night) intentionally did this, I think he is young and has a very limited knowledge of the cities filing and review process, the scrutiny under which all applications are given, and how volatile of an issue it is.
- Along with a local church’s recent application for a special use permit for a cell tower which is tied up in a complete review of the city’s zoning rules, the newspaper’s articles have done what they do best: Get people pissed off and yelling into microphones at city meetings. An absolute crying shame. These folks made up more than half of those in attendance. Forget the fact that the meeting was an educational workshop that actually could have empowered most of them with the knowledge to build a more informed and fact based opposition position. Nope, screaming into microphones is simply too irresistible I guess. I can’t tell you how many times the Mayor had to stop someone mid screed and reiterate that the city had NOT accepted ANY applications as of yet and that this was simply a seminar to educate anybody who wanted to be involved.
- As an industry guy well versed in the subject matter I can say this for certain, based on what was reviewed during the presentation, I could draft a pretty solid opposition position with the material which was reviewed. Did I see anybody taking notes? Nope. Just couldn’t wait to get up to that microphone and unleash the hounds. It was exhausting.
- The thing is, these folks are right to be concerned. The wireless telco’s are an imposing bunch and if your municipal leadership is not up to par on the subject matter at hand they can easily be sold a bill of goods. We are lucky, this just simply isn’t the case with our city’s representatives.
- Every once in a while, an actual appropriate technical question was asked and the hosting group answered all openly and honestly. Again, I was really hoping to catch these guys in spin mode, but not once did they indulge me.
Alas, it was my turn at the microphone and I offered the following:
“My name is Tony Alva [alias used here] of [address redacted], I have worked in the wireless telecom sector for more than 15 years in various positions from procurement and contract support for cell site development to network deployment, asset management, and logistics. I currently do sourcing work for [company name redacted] a small internet service provider. While [company name redacted] was once a player in the municipal WiFi space it has long since exited these businesses. I have nothing to sell, nor do I represent anybody but myself and my family as fairly new citizens of Peachtree City.
My most concerning feeling on this topic is that we must strike a balance with our citizens and the wireless service providers regarding tower siting. As more people dump traditional local wired telephone services in lieu of strictly carrying a wireless phone, the demand for better coverage, more capacity, and better quality of signal will only increase. We are entering an era of reliance on these sophisticated devices and are NOT going back contrary to how some parents of teenagers might feel. (actually got a small smatter of a laugh) The trick is balancing the need for improved wireless service with the “Not in My Backyard” nature of tower siting applications here at the local level. After spending much of my professional career working for wireless service providers, I’m amazed at how poorly these discussions and subsequent negotiations go when there is so much potential for an “everybody wins” outcome. I’ve helped build and/or otherwise played a role in constructing cell sites in the most hallowed and historic of towns, on pristine PGA tour stops, and in neighborhoods where the initial proposals were met with pitch forks and lighted torch. If you drive by some of these sites now you’d be hard pressed to know that they are even there. Here are some random thoughts and questions requiring no answers/response at this moment but are offered for consideration:
- What is the nature of PTC’s existing agreements with wireless providers or consolidators such and American Tower and Pinnacle? Are we earning anything on sublet of the tower space or is it a flat rate for the ground space they are leasing?
- Total transparency of potential costs to build, potential revenue, and the entire process overall are paramount.
- What is the current state of our city’s first responder communications systems? Could these systems benefit from any of these proposed new sites? Where are these antenna and radio equipment located and who is maintaining it?
- The city MUST thoroughly investigate EVERY opportunity to maximize a potential revenue stream generated by managing and or building these sites out ourselves. (I went into length about Highland Falls’ inability to grasp the upside of their similar situation and the stalemate the village has been in needlessly for years)
- Citizens will respond more favorably if they here that a tower site will generate income to the city. This income could be earmarked according to the citizen’s desires.
- The City should drive the process and work with the carriers to create a “win/win” situation. Again, citizens will respond better to tower site issues if they know their representatives are DRIVING the process, NOT being lead around by big telecom behemoths.
- Use mandatory minimum collocation occupancy to green light permits to build a cell site. This will force the carriers to work with each others RF engineering departments on co-location.
- Don’t automatically dismiss the idea of easing a restriction until all options for stealth structures are explored. They may be harder sells to our citizens, but the upside and use of creative solutions may work for us all."
While I was sure some of the microphone fiends were scowling at my back, I think my input was warmly received by the city council, the industry representatives, and some of the citizens in attendance given the number who approached me once the meeting had adjourned. I wonder why they kept asking “Where do you live again?” I jest, I jest, Wait a minute…
We’ll see what happens from here. I’d like to see the city force the carriers to work together to identify sites that work for all of them. Determine what city land lays over this map or land that is close to the most desirable sites from the carrier perspective. From those identified locations, have the city itself build these sites and collect rent from all the carriers. Put no site into construction until a minimum occupancy rate has been signed on. This will guarantee a payback period and dictate all other basic terms to issue bonds with. If these city owed sites are close to neighborhoods, work with representatives of these neighborhoods to include them in potential stealth tower options. It would help if someone from the city worked with the local newspaper to get a permanent beat reporter assigned to this story line and help get him educated on the technology and the city permit revue process so the reporting going forward is less ambiguous.
All in all, I’m very happy with the approach my city has taken with this issue. Certainly restores my faith in government a bit. I may be a pragmatist, but if all these things happen I’m pretty sure most, not everybody, but most will be happy with the final outcome. I’ll keep you posted and bored to death as things develop…