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Alcatel-Lucent Tries a New Approach to the Cellular Tower Issue:
Hiring Engineers, not Lawyers

A major inhibition to the rollout of 3G and 4G services and to the creation of more wireless competition has been delay in getting the necessary local zoning and permits for tower construction. The insert at right comes from the CTIA website and presumably is indicative of what the cellular industry calls “good design”. Thus the industry is puzzled why anyone would want to question putting such installations in a neighborhood.

In a recent court filing CTIA stated,

Wireless technology – especially the advanced wireless broadband technology that is currently driving the infrastructure needs of wireless service providers – generates enormous benefits for businesses, consumers, and the economy as a whole, and is making important contributions to public safety. For that technology to achieve its potential, however, wireless service providers must be free to build their networks across the country.

What does the industry mean by “ must be free to build their networks “? In a recent article in a trade magazine, a major antenna manufacturer stated,

“In order to obtain the necessary site leases, landlords often want specific antenna locations or insist on identifying the locations themselves. These decisions are often made with minimal or no system engineering information and are sometimes based on purely aesthetic concerns: what location looks the best, or “I don’t want to be able to see the antennas from the street.” When antenna placement decisions are made in this manner — without proper engineering input and review — and then locked in through the site lease, there is often trouble ahead.”

Thus the viewpoint is that the first issue of base station design is the operation of the base station and the convenience to its designer. “Aesthetic concerns” appear to be topic for wimps.

Your blogger is proudly a “card carrying” engineer, yet he cringes at the sight of towers that “look like they were designed by engineers”. Good engineering is not only building systems that work, it is building systems that fit practical constraints like costs and compatibility with their location. Is neighborhood uglification a necessary part of our wireless future or is it a result of industry inattention in most cases?

Lest you think that this is the view of an eccentric consultant outside the mainstream, let me give you two quotes from mainstream industry players on the status quo of tower design. Previously I reported about the comments of Bechtel VP Jake MacLeod, at a 2009 FCC broadband hearing when he stated that “we have reached the end of the line for current design concepts (for cellular towers).” (Bechtel is a major builder of wireless infrastructure.)

In the past 2 weeks, Alcatel-Lucent has posted a video by Dr. Wim Sweldens, President, Alcatel-Lucent Wireless Division, a major industry supplier:

Before going into the technology he discussed, here is what this mainstream industry player has to say about the status quo:

But we also have to be honest that in the mobile industry we are creating some problems. The mobile industry is actually contributing a fair amount to pollution...The mobile industry is also obstructing and cluttering our landscapes and cityscapes with more and more and bigger and bigger and uglier and uglier antennas and towers.

And why is that?We as the equipment vendors are part of the problem. We create big hungry base stations that need to become bigger and hungrier as we add more technologies. We put big towers with antennas and more and more of them every day. And that model and those types of technologies can not continue as our industry grows....

We have discovered the capability of taking these power hungry base stations and take these big and ugly antennas and pretty much make them invisible.

Now clearly Alcatel-Lucent is trying to sell their new technology that has little or no field experience at this time. But I am proud of my alma mater, Bell Labs, for taking on this major design challenge to develop creative ways of building base stations without ugliness and even save energy at the same time. Let’s hope that the industry now objectively evaluates this and other new approaches to buildout rather than focusing excessively on legal battles.

Remember what Tip O’Neill, Chmn. Ferris’ mentor said, “All politics is local” - the basic reason why pressing local governments on zoning is a hard battle that is best avoided - even by multibillion dollar industries.

More detailed discussion of lightRadio technology:
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