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October 30, 2008

Tower Babel

 

How many times have you been driving along talking on your mobile phone (with a hands free device, of course) and suddenly the call drops? Often enough that perhaps the most ubiquitous advertising phrase today is “Can you hear me now?”

Immediately the mobile phone carrier gets cursed for the problem as we redial. But cursing the carrier would be a bit like blaming the stagecoach company for the actions of a highwayman.

To meet ever-increasing demand for mobile coverage, mobile phone companies must constantly increase capacity by putting up new antennas, sometimes new towers and other times simply attaching an antenna to some already existing tower. To do so they must seek the permission of the local authorities, even to allow them to erect a tower on private property and pay for a lease. Often those local authorities balk, but more often they simply drag their feet, refusing to act on applications for new towers and additions ones.

Requests to place a new tower or affix a new antenna to an existing structure, say, a water tower, can languish for months, and even years, as the rent-seeking opportunity dawns on some local pen pusher.

Why would local authorities not act promptly on such applications? For one thing, an army of local communications consultants works these issues at the local level, and frankly these consultants have every incentive to drag out the process in order to maximize their fees.

It’s also likely that local authorities are simply avoiding or dodging the issue, since there will almost always be someone in the local community who doesn’t like the site of the tower or the temporary intrusion of construction crews in the area.

But in the meantime, the bureaucrats have:
  • Hampered access to 911 calls for emergencies by limiting coverage for consumers;
  • Limited, or not allowed in the first place, coverage for certain consumers and thereby denying digital opportunity to many; and,
  • Limited innovation at the edge of wireless networks.

Of course, if decisions were simply made in some reasonable time the stick-up men would have much less ability to shake down companies while denying consumers services.

While we are usually sympathetic to having political decision-making occur at the level nearest the taxpayer, and are supporters of our federalist division of government, it probably makes sense for the FCC to require local franchise authorities to act within a defined amount of time on applications for new tower and antenna sitings.



 

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