Mobile tower rage: Consultants bear the brunt

By Ry Crozier on Jun 16, 2011 2:10 PM
Filed under Communications

The 'other' front line.

Daly International knows the "supercharged emotions" that run high within communities facing mobile phone tower projects.

The contract property developer is a 20-year veteran at securing leases and planning approvals for new tower sites.

It also often runs community consultation sessions on behalf of the major mobile telcos (like Optus) that it counts as clients.

Community consultation is meant to allay residents' concerns and let telcos and their contractors get on with the job of rolling out network infrastructure.

But it does not always work like that in practice.

Residents action groups are staunch critics of the consultations (or a perceived lack of it) and news reports - such as those out of Sellicks Beach in South Australia - show the sessions can get a little heated.

Daly's development manager Jeremy Bierer said the issues surrounding tower placements had not changed.

"It's always been a fairly sensitive type of development," he said.

"People want the services and they don't want the infrastructure that goes with it.

"[Electricity] transmission line towers have the same issues. Everyone expects power but they don't want to see dirty big high-voltage powerlines being mown through a forest."

Bierer suggested that opposition was a fact of life when working in construction.

"No matter what you're building, every council will have some form of action group and every engineer will find some issue with a development proposal," he said.

Bierer is supported on that point by Michael Marom, Telstra's area general manager for the Illawarra region, south of Sydney.

"Every time you propose a mobile tower or any new infrastructure, there's groups that express concern," he said.

"As a general rule there are concerns expressed around aesthetics and the impact on the environment.

"That's why we look to minimise the size of the towers, paint them colours to fit into the background, and look at industrial sites where we can tag onto [existing infrastructure] as an absolute first preference".

Marom has recently been battling perceptions of a tower planned for the community of Jamberoo. He is a strong advocate for community consultation.

"Communities have their concerns and our job is to provide information, which is why we have community consultation and information sessions," he said.

"As a company, we feel it's prudent to engage councils and the local community to provide information and tease out any issues that might be there.

"At the end of the day we want to work with communities, not against them.

"And from a cost consideration [perspective]. it's not a massive cost increase [for us] to have a consultation process. We'd rather provide information and take away any hearsay."

Radiating messages

Marom cited electromagnetic radiation (EMR) as a key source of "misinformation or false concern" among communities.

EMR has already caused some robust debate among readers in earlier parts of this investigation - even without iTnews explicitly referring to it.

Marom raised concerns about the propensity for "unsubstantiated" claims about EMR to be proliferated over the internet.

He made it clear that Telstra operated within World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on EMR.

Emissions at Jamberoo, for example, would be at 1/20,000 "of the acceptable standard", Marom said.

Residents groups argue the studies on EMR are inconclusive and that it is better to err on the side of caution.

Ballina Greens councillor Jeff Johnson told iTnews that Skennars Head - where the council he represents was disputing an Optus tower - was an "area with young families".

"There's already some evidence that prolonged [EMR] exposure on young children has negative health effects," Johnson said.

"While current standards and guidelines may say there's no risk, how long before that's changed?

"The more we learn, the more studies are done, the greater the risk that seems to be about."

Number crunching

Both Telstra and Daly International dispute any rise in the number of battles over mobile antenna placements in Australia.

Marom told iTnews that any perceived rise in tower disputes was in proportion to the larger number of new towers being deployed as carriers expanded their networks.

Insatiable demand for 3G services like mobile broadband was driving telcos to add capacity - which often meant new antennas.

"The thing that has taken a big lift is the amount of infrastructure we're putting in," he said.

"In an 18 month period we're looking to put in 27 new base stations within the Illawarra to increase our coverage and capacity."

Bierer also noted that Daly was working on more tower projects.

He conceded there had been "more publicity" given to placement disputes but, like Marom, did not think the proportion of complaints to projects had risen.

This is the third article in a multi-part iTnews' investigation of a resurgence in mobile phone antenna disputes. You can read the first part and second part here. Stay tuned for more.

 
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