Downed Lines: Best Practice for Improving The Way Wireless Telecommunications Disputes are Handled

Kate Harvey , Nick Papadopolous
Right of Way
November 2006

Cellular communication technologies help to safeguard the public, fuel economic growth and satisfy a basic human need – to stay in touch. The statistics are startling. In June of 1998, 60 million people were subscribed to cellular communications services. Now, nearly eight years later, the number is nearing 200 million – more than half the U.S. population.

Rocketing demand for cellular service and the subsequent push for infrastructure development can lead to tangled public disputes. In the case of the telecommunications industry, development of communications infrastructure, such as cell towers, often requires placement of equipment on land where there are competing interests and fear of negative health and land value impacts. In an attempt to address these interests and fears, industry stakeholders have engineered new and creative sites to place their towers and antennas.

Today, it is common to find cell towers located in church steeples or flag poles and disguised as trees, chimneys and even barns. However, even creative solutions such as these do not always get to the root of the problem.

While acknowledging the convenience of wireless technology, many citizens oppose the siting of wireless facilities in their neighborhoods and petition their local governments to take protective action. In response, local governments may use incentives, regulatory tools, alternative dispute resolution or legal action to resolve the conflicts with industry stakeholders. In some cases, disputing parties collaborate to address differences, but more often than not, the disputes end in protracted, costly and adversarial litigation.

These conflicts impact all stakeholders. Indeed, many of today’s dead spots in the nation’s wireless system persist, not from technological limitations, but from ongoing community resistance to wireless facilities placement. In 2005, there were estimated to be more than 500 cell tower disputes in the U.S. court system.

In Downed Lines: Best Practice for Improving The Way Wireless Telecommunications Disputes are Handled, we take closer look at cell tower siting disputes, including the relevant stakeholders, the conflict dynamics and contributing contextual factors. We then describe a history of approaches to preventing and resolving these disputes. Finally, we will look ahead, sharing stakeholder observations as well as our own recommendations for handling telecommunications disputes in more effective and efficient ways.