Cell towers get poor reception from community

Growth in cell phone services leads to more towers going up in natural areas residents want to keep preserved.

July 24, 2010|By Mike Reicher,
  • A cell antenna company installed a pole next to Crystal Cove State Park without notifying the California Coastal Commission or state parks officials. Now, it has applied to the Coastal Commission.
A cell antenna company installed a pole next to Crystal… (MIKE REICHER, Daily…)

CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK — He fought powerful interests: Caltrans, Orange County, the state parks system and the Irvine Co., all in the name of ocean views.

Dale Ghere, then a high school biology teacher, spent the late 1990s eradicating a towering brush from swaths of Crystal Cove State Park. The saltbrush was blocking views — not from his home — but from Coast Highway, where he rode his bike each day.

Everything was clear until May, when a cell phone company stuck a pole next to the state-owned highway. It was not one of those lunar rover-looking towers, but a slender, 30-foot tall pole. Still, Ghere — and a few others — were surprised to see it: The company didn't announce it publically, nor did it apply for a California Coastal Commission permit or inform the state parks it was erecting the pole.

"They just don't get it. People have been working for four decades to get this park developed," Ghere said, agitated. "For me it's just one more little chink, just one more little thing that gets in the way of the open space."


The Crystal Cove case, similar ones in nearby Laguna Beach, and a tense application process in Newport Beach all point to how mobile carriers are aggressively expanding their coverage with a new technology — distributed antenna systems, or DAS. Providers are hurrying to install these small, nimble antennas as customers demand more service. But their explosive growth has led to clashes between the companies that install the equipment, local officials who haven't dealt with the new technology and residents who are caught in the middle.

"You have technology that evolves really fast, and you've got existing law that's designed for the tall cell towers," said UCLA law professor Jerry Kang, who specializes in technology and communications policy. "Entrepreneurs push the edges, and then the law comes in and says, wait, this is not what we expected."

In the past two years, the number of "nodes" in the U.S. has roughly doubled, to about 20,000, according to Joe Madden of Mobile Experts, a Silicon Valley research firm that specializes in DAS and other mobile technologies. Just five years ago, there were close to none.

DAS companies carefully calculate risk when entering a new market. If the permitting process through the city or county is too cumbersome, they might apply for permits and sue if denied. Or they might install equipment without approvals usually required for cell towers.

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