Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sorry Baby, Wrong Number

Well here's an item in today's paper that I am certain hit a nice tonal chord with most readers:

Michael W. Morrissey, the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, is putting forth legislation to impose new regulations on cellular phone companies to make them more responsive to consumers.

The bill, drafted by Morrissey, would force the companies to issue semiannual public reports detailing their signal strength, their dead zones, and gaps in coverage, along with the number of dropped calls.

In addition, the legislation would allow customers with poor service to terminate their contract with their cellphone company without having to pay hefty penalties.

What could be wrong with that, especially coming from the ever-reliable protectors of consumer rights, the Massachusetts legislature?

As usual, there's more to the problem of unreliable service than meets the average legislator's eye (and Morrissey is no average legislator).

As a general rule, by now most every cell service provider is offering pretty reliable service along every major arterial corridor east of Springfield. All of the interstate highways, the Mass Pike, Route 128, most of the major arterial routes through most of the suburbs. That is true in most every instance in which the local municipalities are reasonable in their land use permitting of wireless carriers.

But if you live in Weston, you're pushing your luck if you think you can hold a call along Route 20 (formerly the major route between Boston and New York). If you live in Wayland, you've got no service at all. NONE.

Lincoln (parts of Route 2 only), Concord (slowly improving, after two federal court losses), Carlisle? Good luck. Wellesley? As if. Even on Route 9, you're praying for service.

Senator Morrissey knows this.

This is why people have complaints about service. Some local zoning boards and politicians make it practically impossible to site new facilities to eliminate service problems. For instance, some communities prohibit a wireless installation within any residential zoning district, even if the entire town is zoned residential and the installation is a stealth installation inside of a church steeple. A carrier must therefore seek a series of zoning variances, face strident neighborhood opposition, be denied by the board and file a federal law suit, in which case the Court itself orders the issuance of all development permits necessary to permit the facility to be built.

Several years ago, when the wireless carrier Nextel Communications sought to have local zoning authorities cut out of the process by having wireless classified as a "public utility," it prevailed in department regulatory proceeedings. The response was swift and merciless. Legislators quickly filed legislation to undo DPU's ruling, leaving local zoning authorities free to toss roadblocks in the way, even though federal law was clear that they could not effective prohibit wireless services. Senator Morrissey was in the middle of that very legislative wrangling.

At the impetus of Mass Municipal Association and the wireless industry, a working group was formed to work out a compromise piece of legislation that preserved municipal zoning authority but further defined what local zoning boards could do with particular wireless proposals. For instance, recognizing that the primary opposition to wireless antennas was their unsightliness, the draft legislation required that such installations could proceed without the need for extraordinary zoning relief such as heigh or setback variances. Preference was placed on installations that utilized existing structures (churches, power stanchions, silos, rooftops), and the stringent regulation was left to new tower installations. The compromise legislation was agreed to by all sides; but when the MMA took the bill back to its members, they squealed like they were Ned Beatty in Deliverance, and the bill went nowhere. Since that time, MMA has not deemed the issue to warrant its attention.

In the meantime, the town of Wayland has been chastised by a federal court for its "fixed opposition" to wireless, been sued successfully a second time, and doesn't appear to have been chastened in the least. If you live in Sudbury and commute from Boston, either take the Pike to Natick or take Route 20 and listen to Howie Carr, because a phone call you will not make.

A few years back in Carlisle, one tower provider proposed a monopole structure in the back of a lot on which an auto salvage business was conducted (after the zoning board had expressed its opposition to one other site and encouraged the providers to go to the auto salvage site). Under pressure from a handful of rabid (and utterly mannerless) abutters, the zoning board denied the application, stating that the applicant had not adequately investigated the alternative site across the street -- a combined 75 acres of undeveloped farmland and meadow, abutting the Concord River and a national wildlife refuge, listed on the town's Open Space Master Plan as property that was very important to protect the town's scenic and natural beauty. After three more years of permitting and litigation rigamarole, the riverside cell tower will soon emerge on the landscape to the great dismay of one and all. Now that's progress!

This sort of recalcitrance is not atypical here in Masaschusetts and other New England states. The average cost of permitting a wireless facility, and the average time for permitting, are the worst in the country. As a result, service is worse and the iincremental costs of improving it means all customers pay more across the board.

What is diabolical about this proposal is that (and perhaps Senator Morrissey knows this) there is one provider out there that has a built-in advantage under a legislative scheme such as his. If it were to exploit it under the law he proposes, wireless competition in Massachusetts could be severely impaired, and the immediate result would be a catastrophe -- because no carriers have perfect service and they will not, until the recalcitrant towns get out of the way.

So if you are an environmentalist and you are canoeing on the Concord River when you come upon one of "those things," you'll have the town of Carlisle (and the legislature) to thank.

And if you live in any town where your cell service stinks, call your provider and ask them what they are doing to improve it. If they have plans to seek additional service, support them. Write a letter, or better yet, show up at the hearing and get into the fray. Lawd knows that the opponents of this technology are sure to be there, tin hats firmly atop their heads. And the boards are likely to be listening to them.

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