Wireless network technology is changing faster than government regulation can keep up.

That means reform ideas are needed, said wireless industry leaders at a panel discussion on the issue at a June 18 meeting of the California Wireless Association (CalWA).

The stakes are high.

Look no further than last night’s evening news “to feel the power of this industry,” said Albritton, a lawyer for telecommunications companies and a three-time mayor of Sausalito. 

The Iranian government confiscated ABC News’ cameras to block video of massive street protests against the government’s version of election results. A resourceful ABC broadcaster proceeded to get video of the demonstrations via a cell phone.

In California, the next generations of wireless technologies (called 3G and 4G under plans rolling out now for even greater speed and digital capacity) are dependent on a patchwork system of city and county regulation. That system is guided by a heavy layer of litigation governing how much authority cities and counties have in issuing permits and passing laws governing siting decisions for cellular antennas.

The latest court decision makes it much harder to challenge local ordinances that are burdensome for the industry, said Michael Shonafeld, a telecommunications lawyer who is on the board of CalWA.

That decision, Sprint v. City and County of San Diego, was issued by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last September, ruling on a district court case in Southern California. The Ninth Circuit court reversed its own precedent (City of Auburn v. Qwest Corp. in 2001) that had made it relatively easy for the industry to challenge wireless regulatory ordinances on their face, rather than forcing a lengthier process to gain standing by applying for a permit and having it denied as the San Diego decision does, Shonafeld said.

It appears the U.S. Supreme Court will decline to take the San Diego case, leaving in place the Ninth Circuit precedent, he added.

The San Diego case, agreed Bill Sanders, deputy city attorney for San Francisco, has given impetus to local governments in more ambitious siting regulations.

The San Diego decision has resulted in a “true-up” period with municipalities seeking the proper balance between heeding constituents’ concerns about aesthetics with their desire for wireless development, said Jonathan Kramer, an attorney, engineer and municipal consultant in Los Angeles.

“We have clients stubbing their toes on jurisdictions that don’t want towers in their neighborhoods and streets,” said Shonafeld.

California, with its challenging topographies and great aesthetic pride in hometowns, is a hotbed of neighborhood and city movements opposing wireless development.

The San Francisco ordinance divides the city into unprotected and protected areas. The latter include architectural, historic landmark, scenic area and park area protections.

The planning department reviews most of the protected-area applications. Applications adjacent to parks get a review by the parks and recreation department. An application for a wireless facility in an unprotected area gets a basic review from the public works department.

The city’s most recent ordinance, dealing with applications in public rights of way, has received many complaints based on aesthetics.

“San Francisco is a city with a lot of views,” Sanders said.

Carriers need to be cognizant in designing not only the best pole for a wireless service but the best pole for a given neighborhood, he said.

With San Francisco and similarly large jurisdictions, there is an appropriate level of expertise to properly regulate the field and its lightning pace of technological change, said Albritton.

That’s not true with smaller jurisdictions, which inhibits the development of the industry, said Albritton and Julian Quattlebaum, a Long Beach attorney.

That leads many in the industry to propose that regulation be shifted to the state Public Utilities Commission, which ceded it to local municipalities in a 1990 general order.

Another suggestion was for cities and the industry to find common ground in the civic push to close the “digital divide” with wireless development where it is lacking — in poor and minority urban neighborhoods. Carriers could develop modern broadband networks in underserved areas in exchange for model city ordinances that ease development and shorten regulatory time frames, several speakers said.

Susan Walters sketched a vision of future development from the perspective of the California Emerging Technology Fund, created by the PUC in 2006 with a mission that includes the development of broadband technology.

Walters, a senior vice president of the fund, noted that the agency is developing model ordinance language to help municipalities and hopefully make the process less contentious. The fund also engages in “venture philanthropy,” she said, to spur broadband development.
Albritton said a recent survey underscored Sausalito residents’ support for improved cellular and broadband services.

“It’s the good old silent majority,” he said, and the industry needs to mobilize this public support to advocate for initiatives and laws to promote responsible development.

“The courts aren’t doing this well enough and quickly enough,” said Shonafeld. “The Legislature needs to do it.”

There’s a need for public education on the technology.

CalWA has begun to develop a video, “Wireless 101,” said Scott Longhurst, president of Trillium, a wireless firm in Huntington Beach. The video, hoped to be ready in the fall, will be an effective tool for use in newscasts, demonstrations at civic meetings, and on the Web, said Patti Ringo, director of municipal relations in the western region for Extenet Systems.