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Antenna Hot Potato

A tower policy review committee has been formed. The challenge will be in getting diametrically opposed groups to compromise.


June 1, 2003  


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Earlier this year, Industry Minister Allan Rock hauled on his oven mitts and grabbed hold of one of the wireless industry’s hottest potatoes when he established the National Antenna Tower Review Committee.

This committee — comprised of municipal and industry representatives, plus academics and health experts — will consult with Canadians and make recommendations as the minister attempts to ensure the country has “a fair, balanced antenna tower policy for the future”.

My gut reaction is to wish Rock and everyone on the committee lots of luck, for they have taken on a thankless task. This review is long overdue, and the minister deserves credit for tackling the issue – but no matter what the committee recommends, and the minister decides, some group is going to feel like it has been sold down the river.

TWO SOLITUDES

The challenge will be getting diametrically opposed interests to compromise. There will always be citizens who do not want antenna structures in their communities. They will argue these structures are ugly and decrease their property values, and that the radio waves they produce are health hazards.

The validity of these arguments is less important than the perception: The wireless industry can produce (and indeed it has) a mountain of scientific evidence that their antennas pose no health risk, yet it still fails to convince members of a community. These people will perceive any policy changes that make it easier for wireless companies to locate their infrastructure as a failure by government to protect the people.

Yet any changes that make it more difficult for the industry will be perceived as the government buckling under alarmist pressure, at the expense of what for many Canadians has become an important, if not essential, service.

GOVERNMENT MUSCLE

However, Ottawa can take some steps to improve the existing process, as the committee is bound to hear. Existing procedures include land-use consultations in which parties are encouraged to work together to minimize community impact, “including sharing existing antenna structures where possible”, and the committee intends to assess how and to what extent towers can be shared to reduce their total number.

This objective will be easier to achieve if the federal government develops a stronger policy making this clearly the preferred method of wireless network building. The onus should be on companies to prove that a new tower is warranted if an existing antenna location is available. And while companies should be free to negotiate terms for sharing tower space, the government should be prepared to arbitrate and impose an equitable solution when companies can’t agree on terms.

At the same time, the Radiocommunication Act makes Industry Canada the sole authority over antenna structure issues. But the department needs to be more willing to exercise this right. Just as it can settle co-location impasses between wireless companies, Industry Canada can arbitrate disputes between wireless companies and communities. It has appeared reluctant to exercise this right in the past, preferring to give the parties involved plenty of opportunity to come to their own settlement.

ACRIMONIOUS CASES

But industry watchers can no doubt recall many acrimonious cases in recent years, in which opposing sides made minor concessions but remained diametrically opposed: residents wanted the tower down, while the wireless company insisted that it go up. In these instances, Industry Canada’s intervention may be the only way to settle the issue.

Stronger measures to encourage co-location will make it easier for the department to arbitrate these cases by casting its policies and the industry’s actions in the most accommodating light. There’s little doubt the review committee will confirm the government’s authority to regulate antenna structures. Hopefully, this endorsement will encourage the government to be more willing to exercise its authority.

More information on the National Antenna Tower Policy Review can be found at http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/sectrum.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached at 416-878-7730 or tpmarshall@eol.ca.


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