• U.S.


3 minute read
J. Madeleine Nash

Imagine waking up one morning and discovering an ungainly metal tower, 150 ft. tall, looming above the trees in your front yard. No, such a contraption–a stout monopole topped with a crown of antennas–doesn’t yet mar my leafy corner of suburbia. But it will soon, unless I do something about it, and that prospect has spurred me, along with my neighbors, to churn out a torrent of letters, petitions and telephone calls. Why, we wonder, must Dallas-based PrimeCo Personal Communications plop its tower in a residential area of Du Page County, Illinois, when there are plenty of other sites nearby where it wouldn’t be so conspicuous or so jarring?

Across the U.S., perplexed citizens are asking the same question. In the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporate giants like PrimeCo, AT&T and Sprint are racing to set up the networks of radio antennas that are required by the next generation of wireless communications services. Soon, enthusiasts promise, my neighbors and I will be able to stroll through a suburban mall–or a nearby forest preserve–while sending faxes, retrieving E-mail, even accessing the World Wide Web.

The advantage of the new low-power personal communication systems over conventional cellular phones is that they are lighter and more versatile; the disadvantage is that they need more antenna sites, spaced more closely together. And in the competitive rush to get their pcs networks up and running, companies are cobbling together erector-set structures and slapping them down willy-nilly. “Pretty soon when we look out at a sunset,” says Jacksonville, Florida, homeowner Suzanne Jenkins, “these towers will be what we see.”

The irony, says Chicago architect Nestor Popowych, president of a wireless-development group, is that there is a better way. After all, a tower is just a post for antennas, and any tall structure–a water tower, a billboard, a stanchion in a football stadium–can serve the purpose. Companies can further lessen the unsightliness by clustering their antennas at a common site. When a tower must be built, it can often be camouflaged so that it looks like a silo on a barn, a bell tower on a church, even a palm or pine tree. In fact, insists Lowell McAdam, PrimeCo’s chief operating officer, a free-standing tower in an open field, like the field bordering my home, is the last thing his company wants to build.

So why build it? PrimeCo–which plunked down more than a billion dollars to license airwaves in 11 metropolitan areas–is in a hurry to start selling its services. And it is barred from more logical sites in Wheaton, Illinois, just next door, by a recently imposed six-month moratorium on antenna permits. So it zoomed in on our unincorporated neighborhood as a convenient, and vulnerable, target.

But public opinion does count. Suzanne Jenkins and her Florida neighbors have been living since August in the shadow of a 150-ft. tower that sprouted, toadstool-like, almost overnight. A month ago, however, the company that built it, InterCel, bowed to community pressure and consented to take the tower down. Here in Du Page County, PrimeCo has agreed to consider other sites. “If these companies aren’t careful,” says Gayle Franzen, chairman of the Du Page County board, “they may get the one thing they don’t want”–a tough new set of regulations.

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