[Writer’s disclaimer: I am a consultant, educator and writer in the area of wireless communications. I consult to commercial wireless networks, device vendors, the public safety community and others. But I have never been hired by any company, organization or person to support new cell sites. I am a believer in wireless and understand, because of my work, that without cell sites wireless will not be the pervasive technology that many want it to be.]
Soon the commercial cell sites will have some new tenants: public safety, fire, EMS, sheriffs and police. In February 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that contained provisions for the establishment of a new public safety network for data and video services and $7 billion to build out this network nationwide (not enough funding but a good start).
This new network is needed because commercial networks are not capable of meeting public safety’s needs. The public safety community and commercial broadband operators will work together to build out this Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).
This new network will provide interoperability, enabling first responders and various agencies across the United States and locally to be able to communicate via text, data and video. This will help our first responders serve all of us better and more safely. Even in Santa Barbara County, while the Sheriff’s Department and police can communicate with each other, they cannot communicate directly with fire services, UC Santa Barbara police, or other city and county agencies.
The NPSBN is a cellular-type network that will require many more cell sites than we currently have allocated for public safety. In Santa Barbara County, we have six mountaintop sites for the Sheriff’s Department and county Fire to provide voice communications, but we will need 60 to 70 sites to provide data and video for our public safety community.
That means public safety will need to share sites with the commercial operators to build its network. On the commercial side, the additional cell sites will benefit the 32 percent of wireless customers who no longer maintain a wired phone in their homes and provide more capacity for the rest of us. The county and area cities will need to take this into consideration when evaluating new cell sites moving forward.
Most network operators plan to add many more sites each year than the city’s and county’s capacity to approve them because of the way in which each site must be handled — one at a time. If the county and city had a long-term policy to approve cell site expansion, this process could be fast-tracked to the advantage of the citizens of the area, the city or county, and the wireless operator, resulting in less cost for each of these entities.
The commercial operator must prove that the site it has selected is the best to add coverage or capacity where it is needed. Counties and cities, by law, are not permitted to use health concerns to deny these applications, but they are permitted to consider aesthetics and other issues to make sure the cell sites that are approved meet the requirements of the county or city. Because of the increased demand for wireless broadband services, which is growing at a rate of more than 100 percent a year, over the next five years cities and counties will have to deal with at least a 50 percent increase in cell site permit requests. Now is the time to standardize the procedure for site approval to facilitate network expansion.
Now when the county, city and residents of this area oppose a new cell site, they might also be opposing this new public safety communications network that could end up saving their lives in the future. I know that most people want cell sites but not near their own homes or schools because of aesthetics and health concerns. However, if a cell site is located on a tower, a pole or a faux tree and is higher, rather than lower, any possible radio frequency exposure is reduced.
So the smart thing to do is to approve cell sites that are higher rather than lower, and to remember that these sites will, in the near future, also be used for public safety communications services that might be critical to you someday.
— Andrew Seybold is a Santa Barbara resident and head of Andrew Seybold Inc., which provides consulting, educational and publishing services. Click here for more information. The opinions expressed are his own.