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Plethora of PCS Antennas Raises Controversy

Wireless: Cellular firms, zoning officials and citizens debate appearance and placement.

September 09, 1996|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One thing is sure: Los Angeles' skyline will never be the same.

Roughly 2,000 new antennas are to be mounted throughout the city in the next several years--prerequisites to a wireless future that communications firms have already paid billions for the right to provide here in what is already the wireless capital of the world.

But where exactly they will go and how they will look is somewhat up for grabs.

Many landlords are eager to collect the $1,000 or so a month they can charge from renting roof space to metallic rabbit ears. And the Los Angeles City Council has yet to pass a coherent policy regarding their placement.

So it has been left to seven zoning administrators, dozens of telecommunications lobbyists and a handful of concerned citizens to shape the city's horizon, case by case, in what has already been more than 300 half-hour hearings.

The region's two licensed cellular phone companies, LA Cellular and AirTouch, have been poking antennas into the Southland sky since the early 1980s. But the recent flurry of activity is a result of a Federal Communications Commission auction of another slice of the airwave spectrum for so-called personal communications services.

A digital form of cellular that can handle more call volume more reliably and cheaply than traditional analog cellular technology, PCS will probably be available in Los Angeles later this year. But first, the antenna sites the networks require to relay conversations over the ether must be selected and approved.

"The hardest part about this isn't the technology," said John Baker, chief of Pacific Bell Mobile Services' PCS network construction. "It's getting communities to understand it and dealing with the municipal bureaucracies."

PacBell paid the government $700 million for one of the major PCS licenses in California. Cox California PCS--with a consortium of other cable companies and Sprint--paid $252 million for a license covering much of Southern California.

NextWave Communications Inc., a San Diego-based start-up, won the Southern California license reserved under federal law for entrepreneurs. And this month, the FCC is auctioning off two smaller slivers of the spectrum for each major market in the country.

All in all, analysts figure there will soon be nine wireless providers in Los Angeles alone.

That makes for a lot of antennas. In each case, millions of dollars could be at stake.

PacBell executives, for example, say the city's rejection of one site on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake could cause major problems for its service, even though 100 other sites have been approved. (The company is appealing the rejection.)

"The effect of a delay or a denial can be a delay in service in what we think is the most important market in the country, maybe the world," PacBell spokesman Jim Tuthill said. "If you have a hole in your system, it can be difficult to bring up service, so one or two sites, if they're key sites, can affect our deployment in an area."

Telecommunications representatives come to hearings armed with blueprints, radio frequency engineering reports and photographic computer simulations of each site's post-antenna appearance. Zoning administrators come armed mostly with their own aesthetic sensibilities; some consider the antennas, which can be as much as 40 feet high with four or six vertical panels perched on top, to be eyesores.

Local residents come with concerns ranging from health hazards to community development.

"They're ugly and they're a nuisance," said Tim Sanders, president of the Eagle Rock Assn., which successfully fought PacBell over a proposed antenna site in the middle of a strip the neighborhood was hoping to turn into a pedestrian mall.

"We know this is only the beginning," Sanders said. "All these companies are going to want to put antennas in our neighborhood, and the more we give on this one the harder it will be to stop the proliferation."

Others are concerned about the antennas' potential for physical harm.

"I'm scared about the effects of low-level electromagnetic emissions," Shelley Ward, an office manager in a downtown building next to a proposed LA Cellular site, told Associate City Zoning Administrator Albert Landini at a hearing last week.

Wireless companies contend there are no harmful effects from radio frequency emissions.

And city officials say any judgments they could have rendered on health issues have been preempted by the Federal Telecommunications Act passed in February, which prohibits local governments from blocking the construction of wireless networks for reasons relating to the environment.

One Los Angeles resident, whose Wilshire-area building is home to a proposed antenna site, is suing the city in Los Angeles County Superior Court to overturn its interpretation of the law.

But for now, beautification is the zoning department's sole concern. Fortunately for the future of communications in Los Angeles, the fake-palm-tree manufacturers of the world have been making great strides of late. Landini favors what he calls the "palm garden alternative," in which 40-foot antennas are shrouded in fiberglass and natural fronds.

The telecommunications firms are all for it, except that such beautification can cost more than $100,000 per antenna. Also, a Cox representative said, their research has turned up another problem: The leaf composition of certain tree species blocks radio transmissions.

Other creative solutions have included hiding antennas in clock towers, fake penthouses and even a towering crucifix on a church site.

Said Landini: "I want it to look right, because these are the systems of the future and they're going to be here for a long time."

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