As buildout battles blossom across the nation, many industry leaders are coming to recognize that success in site acquisition requires a comprehensive strategy for maintaining good relations with communities.
The smart money is betting that front-end investments in community outreach always yield far greater dividends than tail-end investments in litigation. Conventional site acquisition typically commences in much the same manner as a general would assess a military target. Infrastructure is studied, highway corridors and electrical grids are mapped, and existing structures are inventoried. The key difference is the objective. Whereas generals set out to make war, wireless providers set out to make money.
After an initial flurry of cherry picking prime sites, providers discover many logical targets are unavailable for want of a willing lessor. In their quest for clear views of the horizon, they then turn to new structures.
This triggers the zoning game as applications for variances engender community opposition. As disillusionment sets in, perplexed providers sense they are making war, not money. At this point they are behind the power curve.
The immediate impulse in the reactive process is to throw money at the problem by hiring lobbyists and lawyers. But lawyers and lobbyists can only carry you so far. The trick is to throw money in the right direction. When you consider that a $100,000 front-end investment in community outreach is roughly equal to the revenue loss from a one-month delay in activating a single site, community outreach makes good business sense.
Getting ahead of the community relations power curve requires a pro-active strategy. It begins with market reconnaissance. Identifying infrastructure and grinding out demographic data is not enough. One must be acquainted with both the lay of the land and the political landscape. You need to know what scenic, cultural and historic resources will be sensitive “hotspots.” These resources invariably have friends and advocates and besides elected and appointed officials, one needs to know the leaders of local land trusts, historic preservations and community appearance groups. If you take the time to identify sensitive areas, these influentials can be brought into the ever-widening circle of people who know, trust and are willing to work with your company. They are your gateway to the larger community.
A recent example comes to mind. Though engineering logic pointed to a small mountain in a mid-sized city as the anchor for its network, I persuaded a client to look elsewhere because my research indicated this landmark would be a lighting rod for opposition that would get the provider off on the wrong foot with the community. The following week, my point was proven when a local newspaper columnist wrote a searing “over-my-dead-body” column condemning expansion plans announced by the city’s zoo at that location. The client quickly realized that had we not done our homework, his company might have been in the frying pan before we got to site one.
Educating these influentials is the next step. Civic leaders have a hunger for knowledge. Strive to satisfy that hunger by arming them with the information necessary to assist you in informed decision-making. You know the industry and the technology, they know the community. Throughout this process you must show the utmost respect for the individuals you are addressing and the community values they represent. At the same time you must repeatedly project a message that each of them is a leader with the power to change the aesthetic outcome for their community. By presenting examples of successful outcomes in other communities, they can be convinced that they can indeed make a difference.
Start by explaining the dynamics of the wireless revolution and where their community fits in the larger scheme of things. Introduce your company and tell them why you’ve come to them. Communicate how the technology works, your site selection methodology, and your openness to alternatives.
Matching the message to the messenger is also important. Company employees invariably wind up trying to sell the benefits of service while consultants sell aesthetic solutions. This is why, when it comes to aesthetics, consultants make more credible messengers. The fact that a company went the extra mile to retain the consultant reinforces the original message while telegraphing an additional message that the company really does care.
Surprisingly, it helps to start your technology lesson with a few “ugly” slides of misplaced monopoles. There’s a good reason for this. When it comes to wireless, the public cares about three things: How much does it cost? Are weekends free? Do we have to see it? The first two concerns can be dealt with once you’re up and running. The last one has to be dealt with right now.
Towers are the thing they fear. That’s why it’s important early on to separate antennas from towers in the audience’s mind. Antennas might be second nature to you, but they don’t know much about them. The best way to do this is to physically show them a few antennas. By doing so, you displace their fear of the unknown and lay the foundation for a rational dialogue.
Proceeding from the “ugly” monopole shots, you can now walk them through the technology and gradually lead them away from the ugliness and toward less intrusive solutions. A rich tableau of rooftop, water tower, chimney, electric transmission and lighting towers, and similar alternatives can be presented. Once they learn that your company intends to use existing structures for three-fourths of your installations, the audience will perceive that you care about their concerns and that you will only build new towers as a last resort. It is important to reiterate that you need their help to avoid towers and to implement these alternatives.
This leads you back to the new tower scenario, but in a much more favorable light. With the audience convinced that this is your means of last resort, you can now discuss collocation as a means of concentrating visual impact. Vertical and side-by-side collocation, collocation between different types of carriers, and separation requirements between antenna sites are good points to touch upon. All of this reinforces the message that your company is attuned to choosing the least intrusive alternative.
What’s going on here? You are progressively converting company needs into community needs. Once these community leaders come to perceive that company and community needs are synonymous, the power of the community can be leveraged to solve your business problem and their aesthetic problem.
Companies are often surprised to learn that these civic leaders are the very people who can crack open many of the existing structures that were previously thought to be unavailable. Quite often you’ll find that when you were turned away the first time around, the lack of interest was due to a single individual. For one reason or another, a water authority manager, hospital administrator, utility executive or building engineer simply didn’t want to accommodate antennas. Once you change the dynamic from company needs to community needs, the power of the community can be harnessed. Why does it work? Because you met the community’s need to avoid another monopole by making productive use of what already existed on the local landscape.
Time and again I’ve succeeded in putting this dynamic to work, both as a community leader and as a consultant. As the former executive director of a land trust, I wondered why new monopoles were being proposed in our community when existing structures remained antenna-less. Upon querying a wireless provider, I learned they had been turned away by the managers of each of these properties. I soon found myself marching into the office of a hospital administrator to argue the community need for his high building. He reluctantly relented and, within months, four providers were located on his rooftop. One by one, water towers and other structures
followed and today our local landscape remains monopole-free.
As a consultant, I recently made a wireless presentation for civic leaders from throughout a basic trading area. Having conducted advance reconnaissance, I told the audience of an unnecessary monopole I discovered close to an unused water tower. I then told them the water tower stood naked because the city manager had decided not to allow antennas on city properties. These community leaders immediately swung into action.
Calling the city manager’s actions inexcusable, a prominent attorney who sat on the board of a local land trust approached me after the presentation and told me he personally knew the city manager and the members of the city council and that he intended to take the matter up with each of them. An official for an adjacent jurisdiction wrote a “dear neighbor” letter to his counterpart taking him to task for the aesthetic impact inflicted on his constituents. Within the week, the offending jurisdiction reversed course and the city-owned water and electrical infrastructure were open for business. A planner for a third jurisdiction brought me a map of all their water towers and asked which were needed. A city manager from a fourth asked about the leasing potential of their water towers.
This is how community power works. Empowering these individuals produced a synergy benefiting all parties. This was a classic win-win scenario. The community was spared aesthetic impacts from unnecessary towers and sites quickly became available without the expense and delay of zoning proceedings or the cost of monopoles.
Not to be overlooked in the buildout equation is concealment. Most carriers recoil in economic horror at its mere mention. However, when the typical $100,000 monthly revenue loss per delayed site and the costs of battling communities are considered, concealment can often be seen to be cost-effective.
The best and cheapest form of concealment is effective use of terrain. Remember the public’s concern is that they don’t want to see towers. In working with communities on aesthetic solutions, look for opportunities to site towers out of view. Can a monopole be set back on a hill on the inside of a curve so that it is not seen by passing commuters? Can it be placed in the middle of a forest so that the viewing angles from residential areas hide it from view?
If a concealed structure must be constructed, be creative in blending it into the surrounding environment. Silos work great on rural landscapes and a wide variety of artificial trees, lighting and transmission tower mounts, and RF-transparent advertising signs, rooftop parapet walls and other devices are now available.
Try polarizing antennas instead of communities. The latest generation of polarized antennas hold great aesthetic potential. Achieving diversity electronically rather than through physical separation, an entire sectorized array fitting in a compact 16-inch cylindrical radome. Coaxial cable runs are greatly reduced and the triangular platform atop monopoles can be eliminated. As the associated weight that a structure needs to carry plummets, the structure itself can become more slender and aesthetically pleasing. Construction costs also drop dramatically. In the not-too-distant future, we may see polarization go mainstream while spatial diversity devolves to a niche market.
The wisdom of cost-effective concealment was proven by Holmdel, N.J.-based Arcnet, Inc. which developed a trio of concealed sites in the Philadelphia area for Comcast Cellular Communications Inc. According to Arcnet’s Dick Johnston “we collared a chimney, hid antennas inside a church steeple, and used a tree monopole. It was the first time we know of that a company got three zoning approvals in a single night.” The words of the zoning board’s chairwoman say it all: “I would like to thank the applicant for their sensitivity to the concerns of this community. I think that they really did their homework this time and really took the time to say, `OK, we want to match your needs with our needs.’ “
The secret is out for those in the know. Proactive community outreach is the name of the game in today’s wireless world. Convince communities you are coming to them and not at them and you’ll reap big dividends for your bottom line.
Paul Rosa is an attorney and consultant on wireless aesthetics. Digital Landscapes, his Washington, D.C.-based firm, advises industry and communities. He can be reached at (301) 229-1207 or by e-mail at [email protected]