Towering Incompetence

At last night’s City Council meeting we unanimously, but quite reluctantly, approved a revised cellphone tower proposal from AT&T as part of settling a lawsuit they had brought against the City. Much of the meeting was spent discussing the proposed settlement, and taking AT&T to task for continuing to underperform in the design and community relations arenas.

The difficult thing for residents to accept about cellphone towers is that the deck is stacked against any municipality when it comes to reviewing a telecommunication company’s plans. That’s because federal law gives cellphone companies broad authority to put antennas wherever they need to in order to eliminate coverage gaps. San Carlos’ hilly terrain has the potential to create many such holes.

The concept behind the federal law isn’t irrational when you consider that regulating use of the electromagnetic spectrum is within federal purview (it’s one of the ultimate public assets) and you consider that no one wants antennas but the vast majority of people want to be able to use their cellphones. It’s also true that having the deck stacked against you doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I want to share the story behind the Council’s anger with AT&T. And we were all angry.

Here’s my take on what happened: AT&T filed a poorly-conceived plan, which didn’t even have its basic facts and assumptions right. Like whether they can add on to an existing installation on the proposed site or have to build a completely new one. And whether there were any heritage trees that needed to be protected. The flaws in this mess were discovered by residents living next door to the site, who spent hours poring over the plans (City staff should have found those mistakes in their review, and are quite chagrined they didn’t; I’m sure they will be more suspicious next time around). Those problems were serious enough that the Council rejected AT&T’s proposal. In doing so the Council asked AT&T to do a better job by coming back with a more aesthetically-pleasing plan that was built on serious collaboration with the residents living next to the site.

AT&T’s response was simpler: they filed suit against the City. Later, they came back with a better proposal, but did a slapdash job of collaborating with nearby residents. In fact, it’d be fair to say they almost didn’t do any. One meeting they didn’t even both to arrange themselves which was noticed to people at the last minute, and ultimately attended by only four people, doesn’t really meet the definition of collaboration.

If it didn’t involve my community and neighbors I could almost find this funny. Giant technical corporation can’t figure out how to submit accurate plans, gets caught flat-footed, immediately launches their lawyers, and then finally gets around to submitting the plan they should have come up with in the first place. Only they want to reserve the right to reactivate their lawsuit if it turns out this new plan isn’t technically feasible. Hello? Do you actually know what you’re doing or not?

Each Council member took turns scolding AT&T for its abysmal treatment of San Carlos in this matter. For my part, I told them how foolish they looked for not being able to get the technical stuff right, twice, but being first off the line in getting to court. Maybe those coverage gaps aren’t just due to hills after all. Maybe they reflect the skills and values of an organization that seems to have more competent lawyers than it does engineers, and more willingness to sue their customers than a desire to collaborate with them.

So there you have it. If you’re an AT&T customer, like I am (and the City is, oddly enough), perhaps you should think about whether you want to support this kind of behavior. And think about writing Congresswoman Speier to tell her that Congress really needs to revisit the underlying legislation. If we have to accept the towers, can’t we at least require the wireless companies to exhibit a minimum level of technical competence in designing and installing them?

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