April 30, 1997 - From the April, 1997 issue

Demand for Cellular & Pager Service Raise Land Use & Livability Concerns

The demand for wireless telecommunication infrastructure has grown so rapidly that cellular providers and city planners are struggling to catch up both with technology and administrative overflow: To free themselves up to deal with issues other than wireless facilities, the L.A. City Planning Commission now often refers cellular provider’s requests to the zoning administrator for review. As we await a June hearing on a proposal to grant zoning administrator reviews by right, The Planning Report is pleased to present the following Q&A session on land-use and technological issues planning with L.A. Cellular’s Steve Crosby, Director, External Affairs and Joe Morales, Manager, Government Affairs.

How in Southern California are sites for wireless facilities selected & permitted?

There is a fairly extensive engineering process involved. Initially a provider 

is attempting to cover the geographical area for which they are licensed to provide coverage to the public. Referred to us “coverage” facilities, the provider spends thousands of engineering hours taking into account anticipated problems caused by topography (hills, buildings, valleys, extensive foliage, and large bodies of water.) Once a coverage grid has been established, the provider then takes into account the public's use of its particular system. As this use increases, mainly in major urban areas and along major thoroughfares, the provider must increase the capacity within certain geographical areas by providing additional sites to the public to meet their needs. The design for these "capacity" sites is far more intricate, as they must be engineered to fit into the existing configuration of established wireless facilities. Faced with the same problems as the engineering for coverage sites, a capacity site creates additional engineering problems because it may affect adjacent coverage sites, which must, in tum, be re­engineered. 

Over and above the engineering questions are land-use issues including acquiring or leasing the sites from willing landlords, completing the permitting and construction processes, and ensuring the site is still technologically effective. 

The permitting process for a cellular carrier varies extensively. L.A. Cellular, for example, covers 32,000 square miles: 4 counties; and some 200 jurisdictions including cities, airport authorities, port authorities, school districts, federal and state lands and parks, and joint powers authorities. Each of these entities has a different permitting process, the most common being a conditional use permit (CUP) required by most cities and counties for most sites, which is approved through a local zoning administrator or planning commission. Permits may also be required from an overlay district, a specific plan area, or a historic district. Further complicating the permitting process, a provider must receive environmental clearance from the state and Federal government along with FAA and AM radio interference clearance. The provider must then go through the jurisdictions requirements for building permits, plan check, and final inspection. 

What kind of regulatory environment are you operating in? How relevant and effective are the regulations you are working with? 

There is a matrix of federal, state, and local regulations with which to contend. 

Besides FCC regulatory compliance, cellular licensees operating within the State of California are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). PCS licensees are deemed "common carriers" and are not yet subject to the intense scrutiny that the CPUC directs toward cellular carriers. Cellular carriers are subject to stringent requirements for the filing of detailed documentation prior to the operation of any new cell site. 

Local jurisdictions have various zoning ordinances and requirements, but one thing is consistent: they are all concerned about the proliferation of wireless facilities. Monopoles are discouraged. Roof-mounted or "stealthed" facilities are becoming the only acceptable type of installation. 

Cities should closely scrutinize applications for wireless facilities to prevent potential visual blight. But at times overzealous city planners create overly restrictive regulations, making it unreasonably difficult to meet city standards, and denying their community quality wireless communication. 

From each jurisdictional level's perspective all requirements applicable to wireless providers are necessary and relevant. But the difficulty for the industry is that many jurisdictions are still learning about the technology needs of the wireless providers. Additionally, the State and local jurisdictions, along with the federal government at many levels, never anticipated the level of public demand for wireless service that we are now seeing. Regulations, therefore, frequently lack the streamlining or built-in expediency to help provider's meet both a jurisdiction's regulatory requirements and, at the same time, the heavy demands of the public for the use of the system. 

Many cities that have never had to process a zoning application for a wireless facility have now been approached by a number of carriers. There is the potential that planners will be inundated with requests for facilities. 

Some local jurisdictions are realistic in what they hope to achieve through the regulatory process, but many are not. It's incumbent upon the wireless industry to better educate jurisdictional officials on how the technology works and what infrastructure communities really need to meet their demands. 

Lastly, the public is not used to seeing the equipment that the industry needs for its system to work. Everyone is familiar with street lights, light poles, and things of that nature, but the many people are not used to seeing the antenna structures that the industry employs. A balance needs to be struck: the industry will hopefully do a better job in the aesthetic design of its equipment, and the jurisdictions will hopefully begin to better understand that the wireless infrastructure is going to lack the symmetry of the street lights and light poles they are used to. 

Please give us a picture of what demand for new facilities is now and how well it is being met. 

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The demand for planning approval is high due to increasing usage and dependency on wireless communication as well as increased competition in the industry. Another catalyst for demand has been the new FCC requirement that new licensees meet aggressive deadlines for providing service to the general population, or risk losing their license. 

What environmental and aesthetic issues should local officials be cognizant of? 

Local officials should be made aware of the ramifications of the Federal Communications Act. They should also understand EMF issues, which are bigger than ever. Specifically they need to realize that a denial cannot be based on concerns about EMF. Officials must also understand that we cannot make all installations invisible nor can we always provide for (or find) a collocation opportunity. 

New stealthing materials are being marketed, but these items will not solve all problems of aesthetics. All sites need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. There will be instances when screening only enhances the visibility and is not warranted. A monopalm in the middle of an industrial area will stick out more than, for example, a slim line, bipolar antenna monopole. 

What jurisdictions provide the best model, in your opinion, for effectively tackling the planning issues surrounding wireless facilities? 

Depending on location, design and zoning, all jurisdictions are cooperative. The best working relationships are with those who hold separate workshops or hearings to learn about the technological requirements of the industry. Further, some jurisdictions are looking at their general and specific plans to provide a component to ensure state-of-the-art wireless communication facilities for their neighborhoods, safety personnel and business communities. 

Many new ordinances are just catching up with ten years of cellular deployment. Cities are just putting the finishing touches on ordinances that are not addressing new technology, such as microcells, that could be placed within public rights-of-way, or unobtrusively incorporated into existing structures. 

Restrictions against placing these microcell sites in residential areas will, in time, obstruct the industry's ability to provide for the growing level of stationary and residential use of wireless telephones. 

What are the local jurisdictional trends toward regulation versus incentives?

Most local jurisdictions are looking at more incentives, rather than regulatory prohibitions or restrictions. 

Many jurisdictions are comparing ordinances, and a number are formulating similar requirements for planning and land-use approvals. The best ordinances provide incentives for roof mounting antennas by offering an administrative-level planning approval, while reserving more restrictive processes for monopole installations. 

You said earlier that policy is sometimes out of date with technology. What technological advances lie ahead that might affect planning decisions? 

I think that the antennas will continue to grow smaller and smaller and become less obtrusive. We're already seeing this happen. And as the range for the microcell increases, these types of installations can be utilized more and more. The less obtrusive that we can make these facilities, the easier the approval from planning departments will be.

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