Saturday, June 23, 2007

Geaghan's Pique of the Week: Cellphone towers

Anyone who pays attention to the built landscape has noticed the proliferation of cellphone towers, most dramatically in suburban areas and along freeways. On recent trips, for example, I've seen some gargantuan towers along freeways in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Their ugly (and strictly utilitarian) design further degrades landscapes that are already afflicted by billboards, shopping malls, parking lots, subdivisions, "monster warehouses" and the freeways themselves. From a hill outside our small town, it's easy to see the extent to which a forest of 80-100 foot cell towers has proliferated in recent years.

To compound the problem, cell towers are sometimes built right next to one another, ignoring the obvious advantages of reducing impacts and costs by encouraging companies to share towers. In a political culture and economy where everything
and I mean everythingis subordinated to short-term corporate profit, tower design and appropriate siting are rarely considered (1). Licensing fees can be an irresistable temptation to property owners no matter how detrimental the visual and potential health impacts may be on a communitynot to mention the devaluation of adjacent properties.

Efforts by local governments to regulate cell tower construction have been rejected by the courts, most recently in San Diego:

[Last week's] ruling was a victory for mobile carriers, including Sprint PCS, which sued the county on claims the law limited competition in wireless telecommunications by making it too expensive and arduous for network providers to put up new towers.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the county ordinance "imposes a permitting structure and design requirements that presents barriers to wireless telecommunications within the county, and is therefore preempted" by federal law [the Telecommunications Act of 1996].

Changing technologies may have the beneficial effect of at least limiting the need for new towers. TechNewsWorld reports that:
Seoul, South Korea-based wireless carrier SK Telecom is planning early next year to deploy new technology that reduces the need for cell phone towers -- so-called "antennae diversity" technology, which may soon also be installed throughout the U.S. and Europe, experts tell TechNewsWorld.

The technology, developed by Bedminster, N.J.-based Magnolia Broadband, Inc., enables carriers to double the number of customers they serve with each mobile phone tower.

But there are downsides. Given the continuing rate of expansion in cellphone networks, the total number of towers seems likely to increase no matter what—especially in places like China and India. And the towers are likely to remain aesthetic nightmares. Worse yet, according to TechNewsWorld:
The next generation of the technology -- currently being tested in Korea -- is even more powerful, promising to give customers GPS-like tracking capabilities on each mobile phone in the network, enabling them, as one expert told TechNewsWorld, to track where one's 18-year-old daughter is after her high school prom, or where one's teenage son is, two hours past curfew.
One can easily imagine more malevolent uses. By permitting the electronic monitoring of millions of people, the same technology could enable the federal government to continue its present course toward what was once called "Total Information Awareness." In a country that already has the least amount of personal privacy in the developed world, this technology has to be considered an ominous development.

Cellphone towers don't have to be as ugly as they uniformly are. Communities can't ban towers, despite unanswered health concerns (2), nor would such a move be very popular with the tens of millions of Americans who have woven the cellphone into their lifestyles to a disturbing extent.

"Stealth" designs are far more common in Europe than North America, with towers that are camouflaged to resemble trees or church steeples. No doubt artists and architects would respond creatively to the challenge of reducing the visual impacts of cell towers. Unfortunately, courts would likely continue to reject attempts by communities to require tower design to meet certain aesthetic standards. But it's worth a try. It would help if congress would empower states, cities and counties to increase local control over the siting and design of cell towers.


(1) A dozen years ago, our local City Council refused to consider any restrictions on siting cell towers, with predictable results.

(2) And not just for humans: the latest Harper's magazine, in its "Findings" column, reports that the proliferation of cellphone signals may have something to do with the drastic decline in bee populations.

PHOTO: A cellphone tower in Oregon (Wikipedia Commons).

DISCLOSURE: Yeah, yeahI have a cellphone, too. But it's never turned on unless I'm making or expecting a call, and my use is limited to about a fifteen minutes per week.

Prediction for a future Pique of the Week: Utility poles and wires that continue to needlessly degrade our towns and neighborhoods. As for those who might quibble over my use of "pique," I realize it has something to do with "wounded vanity." In fact, I still harbor the vain notion that I live in a stunningly beautiful democratic country, though that notion seems harder to justify than it once did.

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