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Antennas less conspicuous but more ubiquitous than towers for cell service

The slender poles are popping up all over the state, including some places where they've not been granted permits.

July 27, 2010|By Mike Reicher, Los Angeles Times

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 towering brush from Crystal Cove State Park, south of Newport Beach. The saltbrush was blocking views — not from his home, but from Coast Highway, where he rode his bike each day.

Then in May, a cellphone company stuck a pole next to the state-owned highway. It was not one of those lunar rover-looking cell towers, but a slender, 30-foot tall pole. Still, Ghere and a few others were surprised to see it: The company didn't apply for a California Coastal Commission permit or inform the state parks department.

"They just don't get it," Ghere said. "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 typifies how cellphone providers are aggressively expanding coverage with new distributed antenna systems. Providers are hurrying to install these small, nimble antennas as customers demand more service. But that has led to clashes between the companies, residents and local officials unfamiliar with the new technology.

"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 last 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 distributed antenna systems and other mobile technologies. Just five years ago, there were close to none.

The companies that erect such antennas calculate risk when entering a 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.

San Jose-based NextG Networks, the company that built near Crystal Cove, obtained a permit from Caltrans to install equipment in the highway right-of-way. That surprised Todd Lewis, the Crystal Cove superintendent. When he and other officials discovered the pole, they demanded that the crews stop work.

"It goes directly against what the park stands for, which is preservation of the natural environment," he said at a Newport Beach City Council hearing earlier this month.

Park officials found another antenna, attached to an existing pole, that they say was installed on park land without permission. NextG contends that it was on Orange County land and no permit was needed. Park officials demanded that NextG take down the equipment, especially since that section of Crystal Cove is being converted to underground utilities.

NextG removed the antenna, and has agreed to apply for a Coastal Commission permit for its new pole along Coast Highway, which it offered to move to the inland side of the road.

"If a city's process is not unreasonable, we will typically take the path of least resistance," said Patti Ringo, the West region director of municipal relations for ExteNet Systems, one of the largest distributed antenna companies. "It's a heck of a lot better than spending two years in court."

The rush to cover spotty cell zones such as Crystal Cove, a place of natural beauty that also sees a demand for phone service from drivers and visitors, prompts much of the conflict.

Speediness makes distributed antennas attractive to cell carriers, which can deploy a network in a city in less than six weeks, a fraction of the time required for approval of the larger and more conspicuous towers. "One of reasons the [antenna] market has grown so quickly is because you can act quickly," said Madden. "Time to market is a big factor for these companies."

Residents usually try to block installations with complaints about health, lower property values and aesthetics. Compared with the large cell towers, however, the nodes have a much softer impact on all three. But because so many more antennas are needed to cover the same area as a tower, the complaints add up.

In Laguna Beach, a city of nine square miles, NextG anticipates it will install 50 nodes.

"It's the proliferation of 48, 50 sites, and then the next company wants to come in and do the same thing," Laguna Beach Planning Commissioner Robert Whalen said at a recent hearing.

Representatives from NextG and ExteNet say they have approval from the Public Utilities Commission to place equipment in rights-of-way. They argue that the health risks are minimal, and that they usually go through the municipal approvals process.

"We really view ourselves as a member of the community, and we're committed to open processes," said Ken Muche, a spokesman for Verizon.

Still, the complicated state, federal and local laws boggle many involved with distributed antenna systems, especially local officials.

Some cities have let antenna companies pass through with relative ease. In both Palos Verdes Estates and Del Mar, NextG obtained right-of-way agreements and had little trouble attaching equipment to utility poles, said Joe Hoefgen, city manager of Palos Verdes Estates and a former administrator in Del Mar.

"But they were a lot more visible than people thought it would be," Hoefgen said.

Some people are willing to live with the intrusion.

"I'm surprised they did it without a Coastal Commission permit," Scott Bassett, 23, a cashier at the Crystal Cove Shake Shack restaurant said of the antenna installation near the state park. "But I'm not going to complain if they're going to give us better cell service."

mike.reicher@latimes.com

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