Tough call: LIers love cell phones, not the towers
The best way to reach Moms of Merrick founder Sharon Curry is with a text message to her new Droid smart phone, which the busy therapist carries everywhere.
But Curry worries about the electromagnetic radiation that sends those messages through the hundreds of wireless transmitters going up in town - especially the one on a utility pole near her backyard. To her it's an eyesore that has hurt the value of her home. And she fears that not enough is known about the health impact.
So her group, Moms of Merrick-Bellmore Speak Out, which was founded to address those concerns, last month summoned a council of more than 200 activists from around Long Island who are fighting towers and antennas in their communities. Their objective: a federal regulation barring transmitters within a quarter mile of schools or homes. "I love my cell phone," Curry said. "I don't want the antenna near my child's bedroom window."
A quarter century after the first cell phone towers established coverage here, people like Sharon Curry embody a telling contradiction: new wireless towers, rooftop antennas and street-level devices are going up at a relentless clip as residents demand more reliable iPhone connections, commuters grow frustrated with highway dead zones and companies sprint to keep up with the voracious demand of teenagers to send texts, swap photos and stream video.
At the same time, the surge has sparked protests and lawsuits, driven by fear and concern about health risks, aesthetics and property values that have dogged the technology from its first days.
The federal government, which sees wireless technology as key to America's future economic health, has intensified its ongoing push to remove regulatory barriers, and this summer announced it would seek to nearly double the amount of radio spectrum available to the industry. Wireless companies, facing competition for subscribers and exploding demand for signal, are scrambling to add transmitters.
More than 5,000 on LI
No agency tracks all wireless equipment, but 5,679 radio transmitters on 1,362 towers were listed on Long Island last year on the website AntennaSearch.com, a private business that aggregates registration records.
Those numbers reflect many types of radio transmitters, including those for police, paging services and taxi dispatchers. And more are coming. NextG, which installs lower-powered pole-top transmitters, or "nodes," to carry signals for wireless companies, had installed about 275 nodes on the Island at this time last year, and said it is in the process of adding 200 more. T-Mobile installed 59 new wireless sites on the Island last year and hopes to add 71 more this year. AT&T this summer announced it was upgrading and adding sites in the New York City area, noting its mobile data traffic has grown 5,000 percent in three years.
Town officials, meanwhile, report an unrelenting pace of applications for mobile phone towers and antennas. In Hempstead and Southold, that pressure led to moratoriums and the hiring of a technical consultant to help them figure out what is actually needed - and now, a proposed Hempstead ordinance barring towers within 1,500 feet of a school.
Huntington, which has typically had a handful of wireless applications each year, saw nine of them in 2009 and a dozen this year, its busiest ever. Since it lifted its 2007 moratorium last year, Southold has had seven applications and is expecting an eighth.
Islip had 17 applications in 2009, more than double any previous year; this year, amid seven more, the town passed its own new ordinance to try to impose some order on what's built.
In Smithtown, planning director Frank DeRubeis says the pace is double that of three years ago, but "we're probably not even at the midway point in terms of what needs to be built."
"We're getting bombarded," said George Proios of Brookhaven's zoning board of appeals. "We could be talking about thousands of those poles."
The reason is simple, industry experts say. "When it comes to broadband, Americans want more of it, and they want it now," said David Redl of CTIA, a Washington lobby organization. "We're looking at demand going up exponentially."
Pressure on local officials
Local officials say they're also hearing from taxpayers angry about dropped calls and spotty coverage. That pressure has led a majority of Smithtown board members to back liberalizing that town's rules for wireless applications, DeRubeis said.
But howls of protest killed plans for a cell tower at a Girl Scout campground in Bayport - opponents didn't want to see it above the tree line, and they didn't want it near the kids. In Bayville, residents sued to remove transmitters from a water tower that they suspect are causing cancer. In Merrick, residents filed a $100-million federal lawsuit against NextG and its antennas; it was dismissed. Similar fights have erupted in Manorhaven and Wading River, Wantagh and East Meadow.
That mirrors a similar divide in Washington, where the EPA says environmental safety concerns about wireless technology are proving "an increasingly controversial topic," even as the FCC has ordered local governments to speed reviews of cell towers and limited the grounds for rejecting them. This spring the FCC ordered that wireless companies be given prompt, fairly priced access to telephone poles like the ones outside Sharon Curry's home.
"The world is going wireless, and we must not fall behind," President Barack Obama said in June.
Wireless will increase productivity, improve public safety, and allow the growth of mobile telemedicine, telework, distance learning and other uses that will "transform Americans' lives," Obama said.
Can't invoke health risk
The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 barred local governments from invoking potential health effects as a reason to block cell towers that meet FCC safety standards, with available research showing no increased health risk from cell phones' electromagnetic fields. But the National Institutes of Health last year launched its most ambitious studies to date probing for those effects, mindful that 91 percent of Americans now use mobile phones.
"The FCC and everyone else says don't worry about health issues, and you can't bring it up in court. But there are issues, and we are worried," said Alissa Sue Taff, president of the Sweet Hollow Civic Association. She opposed a request by T-Mobile, later rejected, for rooftop antennas at Temple Chaverim in Huntington.
Wireless companies have their own pressing worry: If consumers don't like their service, they switch carriers. So companies are racing to boost coverage, however little local residents might like the sight of those antennas.
When T-Mobile sought to erect a 65-foot tower on Norwood Avenue in Port Jefferson Station two years ago, the Port Jefferson Station-Terryville Civic Association thwarted the effort. But the company soon signed a contract with a dairy store nearby. So civic members picketed the store until the owner canceled the deal.
Just as they were declaring victory, opponents learned T-Mobile was planning to build at the nearby Terryville Fire Department - which was pleased at the prospect of a new radio tower and $20,000 in rent - until about 100 livid residents confronted the plan in June.
"Why don't you put it in YOUR backyard?" one angrily asked the T-Mobile reps.
T-Mobile spokesman Steven Caplan said the company has not chosen a new location for the tower but is seeking to respond to the "unprecedented demand of our customers," aware that its coverage on Long Island "isn't the quality that it should be."
The wireless companies had hoped to avoid these battles by lowering their profiles and installing towers wherever they can find a willing landlord: at the Brookhaven Animal Shelter, or a state park in Smithtown; or placing them inside a flagpole at the Hagerman Fire Department or a yardarm at a South Shore marina; in the cupola of the Garden City Hotel, as well as church steeples, faux chimneys and tiles affixed to tall buildings. In fact, NextG Networks promotes its pole-mounted antennas as a way to improve service while bowing to aesthetic and environmental concerns.
But officials are coming to conclude they are over their heads as the complex science of radio frequencies and the clout of wireless carriers confront that implacable suburban dictum: Not In My Backyard.
"If you give zoning boards their usual jurisdiction, we wouldn't have an operating network," said Assemb. Tom McKevitt (R-Garden City).
"It's amazing how many cell phone antennas are already on buildings all over the place and you don't even know they're there," said McKevitt, who helped Franklin Square residents block an installation two years ago. "Then they put that one location up . . . and people start thinking, 'Hey, is radiation coming out of these things? Is it affecting my children?' "