Americans are increasingly cutting the cord on their phones. By the most recent estimates, 40 percent Americans rely primarily on their wireless phone for voice calls, and most of those don’t have a wireline phone at all.
But don’t count me in that number. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to cut the cord. It’s that I can’t. I live in a cellular hole, one of those thousands of places where wireless connections are weak or non-existent. The reason isn’t geography—I live in a well-developed part of the Washington metro area, not an igloo in Alaska. Nor is the problem the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), though its efforts to regulate wireless may do damage in the future.
No, the problem is much closer to home—my local zoning authorities. Wireless carriers, as it turns out, had not forgotten my corner of the world and have been trying to build a cellular transmission site to erase the dead zone for some time, but they have been stymied by an infinitely elastic approval process.
The currently pending plan for my neighborhood, jointly proposed by Verizon and T-Mobile, is a sensible one, involving the construction of a tower at a nearby middle school. The tower would be no higher than the steeple of a nearby church, and would be built at the football field designed to look like just another grandstand light pole. To figuratively top it off, the carriers would pay the middle school some $30,000 up front and thousands each year afterward for hosting the cell site.
It all seems like a win-win for all involved, and the plan looked set to be okayed by early summer. But then, the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) crowd came along, raising a variety of complaints. “It will be ugly and decrease property values,” they said. But the structure would be little different than the poles that are already there. And in any case, would a prospective buyer be more deterred by the possibility of seeing a cell tower nearby or by the lack of wireless service?
The second concern is over the health effects of radiation from the tower. But study after study has revealed no health hazards from cell towers. Conversely, the lack of home wireless service does reduce safety—as anyone who had tried to use a cordless wireline phone when their power is out knows well.
Based on these complaints, however, the plan was put on hold by a local county supervisor, who asked the zoning board to study alternatives. A hearing on the whole matter is set for next week.
The tower may yet be approved (as have others in the area), and I may soon be happily, and wirelessly, communicating from my home. But the experience illustrates the obstacles that local governments can put in the way of new communications technologies. While so much attention is focused on debates at the FCC and in Congress over technology policy, many of the key decisions about our communications future are in the hands of local officials. Local discretion is not absolute—and is limited by FCC rules—but is nonetheless substantial.
So the next time you have a complaint about your phone service, you might want to call your county zoning board, not the FCC. That is, if your phone works at all.