NEWARK, N.J.-It’s trade secrets vs. tell all as wireless telecommunications companies try to hide their strategies from competitors while seeking fast buildout approvals from municipalities that want full disclosure.
Local government officials, accustomed to more than a decade of slow and orderly growth in wireless telecommunications, today feel besieged by the proliferation of cell site requests due to a bevy of new carriers and expanding consumer demand. Trying to bring order to the resulting planning chaos, several municipal officials asked why representatives of the different wireless carriers don’t approach local governments at the same time, each bringing their network planning maps.
The apparently contradictory reasons are twofold-competition and collusion-said Richard Craig, regional director of network engineering for Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile in Orangeburg, N.Y. Craig participated May 19 in a panel discussion, “Town Hall: Wireless Providers Meet the Municipalities.” It was part of the Northeast Regional Wireless Buildout Conference, sponsored by Shorecliff Communications International, Dana Point, Calif., in association with RCR.
“It’s a hugely competitive business, and your footprint is your competitive advantage,” Craig said. “There is a reluctance to show our master plans because of what they reveal to competitors. It’s also impossible to develop a five-year plan because growth is so unpredictable.”
However, Craig added that BANM has made its existing cell sites known and available to all newcomer carriers for collocation. “We have hired a property management firm dedicated to marketing all of our sites to get our counterparts on our sites,” he said.
Furthermore, on the antitrust side of the equation, wireless telecommunications companies that volunteer unsolicited to work with their competitors in terms of joint site plan proposals to local governments would render themselves vulnerable to allegations of collusion in restraint of free trade, Craig said. Being asked to do so by local governments helps relieve the telecommunications providers of that threat.
Rochester, N.Y., has found a way to resolve this dilemma, said Larry Stid, city director of planning. In drafting a wireless cell site ordinance that became local law in February, it invited the three wireless players already doing business in town-Frontier Corp., Cellular One and Sprint PCS-to meet with city officials collectively and then individually, “in case of fears about competitors.”
Meetings between government and industry representatives can work well if they are off-the-record and confidentiality is guaranteed. But not every municipality is able or willing to provide that guarantee, as testified to by a representative from Old Bridge, N.J., who was in the audience at the May 19 conference.
For more than a decade prior to 1996, Rochester had five cellular telephony cell sites, all located on or near primary commuter routes between the center-city business district and surrounding bedroom communities. During the first six months of 1996, “the dam broke,” Stid said, and Rochester was faced with 10 cell site applications, including four stand-alone towers. “The initial reaction was to fire a bureaucratic broadside, sending (the applicants) to three boards and requiring a full environmental impact statement-the equivalent of doing nothing at all,” he said.
Instead, the city imposed a five-month moratorium. First, its officials sought and studied an avalanche of information about wireless telecommunications. Next, they invited the carriers in to help draft an ordinance that clarified the government’s role and created incentives for collocation, or shared siting. Collocation applications are approved as building permits, a two-week process. New tower sites, of which two are pending near residential neighborhoods, go through lengthy planning and zoning reviews.
Moratoriums that give local governments a chance to rationalize the cell siting process can be helpful to all concerned. But they also can be an open-ended attempt at denial by delay, said Sharon Myl, director of site acquisition for Omnipoint Communications Inc., Cedar Knolls, N.J. In her experience, Myl said she has seen 90-day moratoriums stretch into six months and more. “This can cause havoc for the buildout,” she said. Buildout delays impose an especially severe financial burden on those wireless carriers that have paid large sums of money to acquire Federal Communications Commission licenses, she said.
Unlike Rochester, Middletown didn’t need a moratorium because it hadn’t received an application before it created its cell siting ordinance. Instead, the township was motivated to act by court reversals of siting denials in nearby towns.
“I didn’t wake up one day and say I want to get into wireless; I was brought kicking and screaming into wireless,” said Anthony Mercantante, Middletown director of planning and community development.
Like Rochester, Middletown’s ordinance gives incentives for carriers to collocate their sites, with special priority given to collocation on township property. “About a year ago, we received three applications for towers within a stone’s throw of the municipal building,” he said. “In dealing with the carriers, we found they typically know what the others are up to, but no one talks to each other about collocation or comes informally to the municipality before a formal application.”
Eventually, the three carriers-Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile, ComCast Cellular Communications and Sprint PCS-set aside their initial skepticism and agreed to put their applications on hold until Middletown could develop specifications for them to bid for a collocated tower site on municipal property.
“We learned to do the bid specs, a difficult process. The first time, no one bid, so we redid the bid package and no one bid,” Mercantante said. “In New Jersey, that’s good. If, after the second time, no responsible bidders come forward, the municipality can negotiate.”
Ultimately, Middletown replaced an existing 110-foot tower with a 150-foot tower-both on town property bordering a historic district-“for one company, with the understanding it would lease the site to at least two other carriers,” he said.
Middletown officials received two unanticipated kinds of complaints from local residents as a result of its actions, Mercantante said. The first came from a neighboring private landowner angry about losing tower site rental income to the local government. The second came from residents wondering why the township took down the old tower.
Just as municipal officials wanted to know why wireless carriers don’t cooperate with each other more in joint cell siting applications, wireless carriers asked their government counterparts why there isn’t more cooperation among municipalities for countywide or regional cell site planning and zoning.
Zoning, in particular, is a prerogative of local governments under home rule statutes, which are especially strong in Northeastern states, government officials said.
In Monroe County, N.Y., where Rochester is located, Stid said: “All 39 [municipalities] are going on their own. A neighboring town recently adopted an ordinance regulating anything over 50 feet tall. The legal notice was 12 pages long in the local paper, and I doubt anyone in town knows what they voted for.
“There is a need for a countywide, region-wide approach; we are looking to regional groups and to counties, which have some responsibility to [inform] towns about activities in other towns within a certain distance from their borders.”