September 15, 2000
SITING CELL PHONE TOWERS
By: Kevin E. McCarthy, Principal Analyst
You asked why some areas of the state have poor cell phone reception. (This memo uses cell phone to refer to cellular radiotelephone and Personal Communication Services (PCS) systems.) You also requested a discussion of the legal framework for siting cell phone towers, and a discussion of cases where towers had been opposed and the outcome of these cases.
Poor reception can be caused by inadequate coverage by the cell phone network or inadequate capacity of this network. Coverage is affected by the density of the antennas that are used to receive and transmit cell phone calls and the topography of the area. In Connecticut, coverage is best in urban areas and along major highways. Coverage is less extensive in rural areas, particularly in the hillier parts of the state. Even in areas with good coverage, reception may be poor in areas where cell phone traffic exceeds the network's capacity.
The Connecticut Siting Council has jurisdiction over the siting of towers used for cellular radiotelephone services and certain other towers. Local land use agencies such as zoning commissions have jurisdiction over those used for PCS. State and local agencies must comply with the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which bars agencies from “zoning out” such towers, among other things.
Nearby residents often oppose cell phone towers on aesthetic, economic, or health grounds. In some cases, regulators are able to work out compromises to address these concerns. In other cases, the regulators approve the towers over the objections of the neighbors, citing the provisions of federal law. In still other cases, the regulators reject the applications or impose conditions that telecommunications companies find infeasible. There is an extensive body of federal and state case law on siting telecommunications towers.
CELL PHONE RECEPTION
Both radiocellular and PCS use radio signals to carry calls to and from cell phones. The signal is transmitted via an antenna, which can be located on a tower or other structure.
For both technologies, coverage is affected by the density of antennas serving the area and the area's topography. The density of antennas in an area reflects the local demand for cellular services and the cost of meeting this demand. Demand increases with population density and the income of the area. At the same time, urbanized areas are less expensive to serve than rural areas. For example, antennas can be placed on tall buildings and other structures in urbanized areas, while towers are required to provide coverage in rural areas. Reception is also worse in hillier areas, which tend to be rural, than in flat areas. Demand is also higher, and the density of antennas greater, along major highways than rural roads.
Figure 1 (attached) shows the locations of towers that have been approved by the Siting Council. It indicates that towers are most common in Fairfield, New Haven, and Hartford counties, and along the interstates and other limited access highways. While it does not show the locations of towers regulated by municipalities, it is likely that the general pattern is the same.
Reception can be poor at times even in areas with a well-developed network where demand exceeds the network's capacity. The network's capacity is limited by the number of channels (radio frequencies) it can use. Cell phone technologies reuse individual radio frequencies by dividing a service area into geographic zones called cells.
A frequency being used to carry a conversation in one cell can be used to carry another conversation in a nearby cell without interference. When a customer using a cell phone approaches the boundary of one cell, the wireless network senses that the signal is becoming weak and automatically hands off the call to the antenna in the next cell into which the caller is traveling.
The capacity of the network has increased with the construction of new towers and the increased use of PCS, which carries more channels than cellular. But, demand for cell phone services has, in some places, risen even more quickly. The growth in demand has occurred as the geographic availability of cell phone service has increased, the quality of service has improved, and its costs have declined.
SITING CELL PHONE TOWERS
Under CGS § 16-50g et seq., the Siting Council has jurisdiction over telecommunications towers used to provide cellular radiotelephone and cable TV service. It also has jurisdiction over towers owned or operated by the state, a public utility, or a telecommunications company certified by the Department of Public Utility Control. In some cases these towers are also used as sites for PCS antennas.
A council certificate is needed to build such towers or to modify them. The host town, among others, is entitled to notice of the application and can participate as a party in the council's proceedings. The council must hold a hearing in the town where the tower is proposed to be located, and the hearing must be held after 6:30 p.m. for the convenience of the public. In recent years, the council has received few requests for new towers (one in 1999 and fewer than ten per year in every year since 1994). Most applications regarding towers are handled under CGS § 16-50aa, which promotes the sharing of existing towers.
Local land use agencies, such as zoning commissions and inland wetland agencies, have jurisdiction over all other types of telecommunications towers. These include towers used to provide PCS that are not subject to the Siting Council's jurisdiction, as well as TV and radio broadcast towers and towers used by businesses other than telecommunications companies.
Both state and local agencies must comply with the federal Telecommunications Act in regulating facilities used to provide personal wireless services. Among other things, the agencies cannot "zone out" such facilities, i.e., their actions cannot have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services.
The agencies cannot unreasonably discriminate among providers of functionally equivalent services. Nor can an agency regulate a facility on the basis of the environmental effects of the radio frequency emissions the facility produces, so long as these emissions are within the Federal Communications Commission limits.
A person aggrieved by the state or local agency's action can appeal to state or federal court. Sprint PCS has filed a suit against the state in federal court. In this case, which is pending, Sprint PCS claims that Connecticut's split in state and local jurisdiction violates the provision of the Telecommunications Act that bars unreasonable discrimination in the treatment of comparable service providers.
LOCAL OPPOSITION AND ITS EFFECTS
Cell phone towers often provoke opposition from neighboring property owners. Perhaps the most common objection is that the tower will impair the aesthetics of the area, particularly when the proposed site is in a scenic or historic area. A related concern is that the tower will reduce property values in the area. Another common worry is that the radiofrequency emissions will harm the health of nearby residents, with a particular concern for children.
Tower developers and state and local regulators routinely negotiate in an attempt to address these concerns. In some cases, these negotiations are successful. For example, earlier this year a consortium of SBA Communications, Sprint, and Omni point proposed building a 180-foot tower in a residential area in Glastonbury. The proposal was strongly opposed by nearby residents. The companies subsequently proposed a more remote location, which was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals in August. As part of the approval, the companies agreed to provide access to the tower to other telecommunications companies as well as municipal agencies.
In some cases, regulators approve towers over local opposition. For example, in July of this year, the Deep River Planning and Zoning Commission approved a proposal by Voicesteam, even though neighbors argued that it would reduce their property values. On the other hand, the Litchfield Zoning Commission denied an application by SBA Communications to build a 195-foot tower off of State Route 202. The commission held six public hearings on the application and rejected it, in part, because it was not in harmony with the neighborhood. The decision was affirmed by the Superior Court, which found that the commission's decision was based on evidence in the record.
In some cases, regulators approve towers with conditions designed to address local concerns. For example, in 1998, the Siting Council approved an application by Bell Atlantic Metromobile to build a tower in Westport. But the council required that the tower be built on a different location on the parcel in question and approved the tower at a lower height than had been requested. The decision was appealed, on various grounds, by neighboring residents, the town, and one of the telecommunications companies planning to lease space on the tower. Several of the cases are pending before state and federal courts.