In 1997, set your sights on antenna siting.

It’s the No. 1 issue, first and foremost. Every other issue-and there are many-pales in comparison.

Why? It’s simple. Without antennas, to paraphrase Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile star James Earl Jones, “The call doesn’t go through.” That can be a problem if you are a new digital pocket telephone company trying to compete with two entrenched cellular carriers for business in the next century.

Sure, microwave relocation is important. Just ask personal communications services licensees, utility companies and Sens. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Judd Gregg (R-Vt.).

And so is numbering … and PCS licensing … and interconnection … and universal service … and spectrum reform … and FCC reform … and foreign ownership … and expanded auctions … and 800 MHz specialized mobile radio auctions … and paging auctions … and narrowband PCS auctions … and 220 MHz auctions … and general wireless auctions … and RF bioeffect research … and public safety spectrum requirements … and private wireless policy … and the budget … and trade … and cellular privacy … and enhanced 911 … and international satellite regulatory reform … and encryption policy … and FCC Chairman Reed Hundt’s rumor-driven future.

All are on the menu this year.

But no site, no fight. No wireless competition. A cruel joke for a bunch that has paid $20 billion to the U.S. Treasury to make pocket phones as common as wristwatches. The Feds feel the heat. But there is no silver bullet to fix antenna siting.

The battleground is every city and neighborhood in all 50 states.

Not only that, the issue is a moving target. Comply with federal radio frequency guidelines and the local zoning board might find a problem with tower aesthetics or something else. Maybe they’ll hit you for a hefty franchise fee or simply take six months to study the matter.

The wireless telecom industry thought it had the big M-momentum-when Congress made national antenna siting part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. But look again. Cities, states and townships have a big M of their own: moratorium. It has the potential to delay or, worse, stop PCS dead in its tracks.

This would be good news for cellular carriers, who paid the Feds zip for their licenses and have had more than a decade to feign competition in a duopoly market. Except that most big cellular players are big PCS players. Oops.

Slick lobbying that works well on Capitol Hill doesn’t score in City Hall. The opposition is diverse, yet unified; it cannot be isolated and fought on one front. It’s a potent, eclectic mix of soccer moms, zoning czars, environmentalists and union members. They put out pamphlets on “Cell Tower Static” and congregate regularly on the Internet.

So far, industry and the Feds have proved no match for the locals.

As such, federal regulators and the young and restless PCS industry are finding out that antenna siting is complex and multidimensional.

“We’re looking at ways we can get at this problem,” said Michele Farquhar, chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission. “Ways” is the key.

Farquhar, after huddling with industry lobbyists, believes that even if zoning delays do not violate national siting policy they may run afoul of federal laws banning market entry barriers and state entry restrictions.

The bureau is believed to be crafting a proposal to address moratoria and the like.

Thomas Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, normally wouldn’t greet calls for congressional hearings on cellular privacy with enthusiasm. But he is, because privacy is on the national radar screen and it’s a wonderful platform to advance the cause of antenna siting for next-generation digital pocket telephones, which offer more security than the analog cellular phone technology Democrats used to spy on House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and GOP leaders.

“We need to clarify provisions and toughen penalties related to the illegality of cloning wireless handsets; and, Congress should modify any regulatory and statutory hurdles that are slowing the deployment of and conversion to digital services by wireless carriers in their license areas,’ said Wheeler.’

The creative approaches to the problem are, of course, a tacit admission that Section 704 of the 1996 telecom act-the national siting provision-lacks teeth.

Farquhar, half jesting, half lamenting, says, “One of the best things that Congress could do in this area is give these states and cities a cut of the auction revenues because the real problem here is that cities and states see how much money the FCC gets from these spectrum auctions and then feel they have to live with the problems of these towers, and all we get is the gravy.”

Adding to the problem is confusion over the new, hybrid RF safety guideline adopted in August by the FCC. The standard, stricter than the existing one and made controversial by the Environmental Protection Agency’s support, was to go into effect Jan. 1. But the FCC delayed the effective implementation date to September because neither the agency nor industry are ready.

The wireless industry will not have the luxury of dwelling on antenna siting, though.

Interconnection policy, which for wireless brought parity into a regulatory arena long skewed in favor of landline telephone companies, may well be overturned by a St. Louis federal appeals court later this year. Then what?

Wireless operators will continue to negotiate new interconnection agreements with the Baby Bells, GTE Corp. and other monopoly wireline carriers.

The FCC currently is faced with carrying out the telecom act’s universal service mandate.

Here, as in early phases of the interconnection debate, wireless is behind the proverbial eight ball. Wireless carriers will be forced to help underwrite universal service, but could have a hard time tapping into funds meant to subsidize the poor and those who live in high-cost rural areas.

“Excessive charges on telecommunications carriers could backfire,” said Jay Kitchen, president of the Personal Communications Industry Association.

“Increases in phone rates to cover an overly expansive universal service plan would increase the number of consumers unable to afford telecommunications services, which would in turn necessitate a larger fund,” he said.

The wireless industry also is fighting to streamline microwave relocation rules and to prevent the FCC from creating a 2.3 GHz wireless monster with spectrum decreed by congressional budgeters. The industry fears money will dry up on Wall Street if the spectrum is used for yet another pocket telephone carrier, possibly a nationwide one.

The heavy emphasis on commercial wireless helps to explain the private wireless agenda. The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau published a white paper on private wireless policy, but the future course is not well charted.

The FCC is putting most emphasis on securing spectrum for public safety radio services. TV channels 60-69 appear to be targeted.

In Congress, lawmakers are expected to take up spectrum reform, international satellite regulatory reform, expanded auction authority (private wireless spectrum fees are on the table as an alternative), encryption export liberalization, cellular privacy, FCC restructuring (elimination?), possible technical amendments to the telecom act, FCC and cabinet nominations.

The Clinton administration has begun to put its encryption policy into action, a sore spot with Senate communications subcommittee Chairman and encryption bill author Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). Stay tuned.

On the business side, the GOP-controlled Congress will attempt small business incentives, capital gains tax relief and a balanced budget amendment that will cause controversy with the Clinton administration.

All of this assumes both Gingrich and Clinton
remain in office.


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