Seybold's take: cell site expansion is necessary for growth

We all know by now that we need to have cell sites in order to have cell coverage. As of January 2009, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, in the United States there were over 245,000 cell sites. This represents coverage of 89 percent of the U.S. population, and wireless customers numbering more than 277 million. Also according to the CTIA, the number of wireless-only households is over 20 percent up from under 8 percent in 2005.

But in the next five years the number of cell sites is going to double. First, the existing network operators need additional cell sites in order to increase capacity (capacity can only be increased two ways in wireless--add more spectrum to sites or build sites closer together), provide better coverage, and stay competitive. New network operators such as Clearwire are building additional sites, and there are a number of spectrum holders that have not started building yet, most notably the cable companies.

Many existing sites will be shared but we are still going to need more, and, of course we are going to see femtocells and hand-offs to WiFi becoming increasingly important in order to provide even more capacity. If the FCC is successful in finding additional spectrum that can be taken out of service and re-purposed for commercial wireless networks, we will have another 50-300 MHz of spectrum available within the five-year time frame as well, and as we move toward building out broadband in rural America. The most economical way to do that is to use wireless.

At issue here is the fact that many news articles are surfacing about harmful radiation and the effects of wireless on humans. Most of the articles are not based on fact but they live on, and community leaders are using them to push back on new cell sites. Of course the federal government pre-empts state and local governments from using health reasons as an excuse to deny new tower sites, but the fact remains that when the citizens raise the issue in protest many of the local agencies are backing down and trying to find other ways to block tower sites.

In a community near where I live they have never permitted cell sites. They are an upscale community and they don't want cell sites destroying their views or causing potential health problems. Last fall a large portion of this area was destroyed by a massive wild fire. More than 200 houses were lost and one of the biggest complaints we heard was that there was no cell coverage so that residents who were fleeing just minutes ahead of the fast moving fire could not get in touch with their family or friends, and could not, therefore, coordinate their escape and make sure that the entire family was safe.

I assumed that after the embers cooled down and the residents started to rebuild the wireless network operators would be welcomed and could get on with planning stealth cell sites to finally cover the area. I was wrong, however. Instead of working with the network operators, the residents are as adamant as ever that they don't want cell sites, or even small picocells in their neighborhood. One contractor is planning to run fiber on the existing poles in this city and install picocells to provide coverage for one or more of the networks. This is a logical plan that has been implemented in many different communities. Meanwhile other network operators are proposing sites that will provide coverage and cannot be seen.

All of these attempts have been met with public outrage--to see it in the newspaper you would think that every resident of the area was opposed instead of the vocal few. But the vocal few are the ones who show up at the planning and Council meetings, not those who want coverage and will accept the fact that this requires cell sites to be built. One of the most controversial picocell sites that has been chosen is about 30 feet from a school. This is unacceptable, according to the vocal few, and will endanger the children at play. No manner of logic, no diagrams of coverage, no engineering reports will satisfy people and therefore, the powers that be are looking at ways to block this project. No one seems concerned that while over two hundred houses burned to the ground last year, there are many more homes in this area which could burn in the next major fire, and there still won't be any wireless coverage.

As an aside, when the network operators all brought COWs into the area during the fire to help the first responders communicate their non-emergency traffic, the residents were thrilled with the fact that they could, finally, use their phones in their neighborhood. The fire was extinguished, the fireman and the COWs went home, the town is still without coverage.

There is nothing that we can do about the vocal few except to continue to try and educate them, however there are some things we can do to help those residents who want the service to voice their support, and there are ways to let local governments know that sites on government property can be a good source of income in these hard economic times. The network operators need to be more pro-active in the community and ask for support from those who want the service. If all that is heard are the nays, then it is going to take a lot longer than five years to double the cell site count, and the networks won't be able to keep up with the demand for video, audio, graphics and the Internet, let alone voice.

If you work in wireless and you know that there are new sites being proposed in your city or county then you should get your neighbors to do something very simple: Send the planning commission an email supporting the new cell sites. This is all that is required, and it will make a difference.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide. For more, see