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Wireless industry moves to stem flow of cellphone tower ire

Workers secure transmission lines to a 130 foot tall communication tower in Chatham, Ont., in this file photo.

Blair Gable/CP

Canada's wireless industry is taking a new tack to stem the rising tide of citizen complaints over new cellphone towers.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, the industry's main lobby group, has partnered with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on a new protocol for the placement of wireless antenna systems to create better co-operation between carriers and communities.

Jointly developed by the two groups, the protocol is designed to give communities better notice of carriers' plans and more influence over the consultation process. A key change is that municipalities will have the power to ensure that all cellular towers and antenna systems are subject to a full public consultation prior to their construction, including those that are less than 15-metres in height.

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Under federal rules, carriers are exempt from consulting with communities if they plan to erect towers that are less than 15-metres tall – a loophole that has become a sore point with residents in recent years. That is because some carriers have deliberately built towers that are 14.9 metres tall to avoid community consultations.

"One of the major complaints that we get from our constituents is with regards to not being notified and not having adequate consultation around the need for the tower, the placement, the look of the tower – the list goes on," said federation president Karen Leibovici, who is also a city councilor in Edmonton.

"In the past, if you put in a tower at 14.99 metres, you didn't have to engage in any kind of consultation. Someone could wake up the next morning and there is a cell tower outside their front yard."

Although neither group could offer statistics on complaints, Ms. Leibovici said anecdotal evidence suggests there has been an increase in concerns expressed by residents over the placement of cellphone towers. "We're hearing more and more about it across the country," she said.

There are some 13,000 wireless antenna sites across Canada, including those located on the roofs of office buildings or on municipal water towers. (By comparison, there are roughly 285,561 cell sites in the United States and 52,000 in the United Kingdom.)

Here in Canada, part of the tension to date is the rapid growth of cellular sites as new entrants roll out their networks and established players add more towers to boost capacity in order to feed growing demand for wireless services.

There are more than 27.4 million wireless subscribers and it has become increasingly common for many urban dwellers to go "wireless-only" – meaning they do not pay for a separate home phone service.

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Beyond preventing so-called dead zones for voice services, wireless carriers are trying to keep pace with skyrocketing data usage on smartphones.

Canadian mobile data traffic, which increasingly includes video, is expected to increase nine-fold from 2012 to 2017, according to Cisco. Moreover, it predicts there will be some 66 million mobile-connected devices in this country by 2017.

"The only reason why carriers want to build new sites is to satisfy consumer demand," said CWTA president Bernard Lord.

Even so, many Canadians do not want to see a new cell tower in plain sight of their homes.

As result, the two groups say the new protocol uses "common sense solutions" to ensure that communities are given advance notice and an opportunity to voice their concerns. At the same time, it will give carriers more certainty over local preferences regarding antenna designs and locations for new tower sites.

Municipalities, however, cannot set rules that prevent a network from going up. Industry Canada remains the final authority on the matter and ultimately decides whether to accept a municipality's recommendation on any new tower sites.

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Citizens For Safe Technology, a non-profit community group based in Oakville, Ont., said that while the new protocol is being billed as win for citizen consultation, the process itself has "no new teeth" to regulate the construction of new towers. Furthermore, the protocol does not broaden the scope of allowable comment for municipal land use authorities.

"The only comments they can provide are about physical attributes or if there is something from a safety standpoint," said CEO Frank Clegg, adding comments about potential health concerns would be considered off topic.

According to CWTA, carriers are prepared to build their networks around community preferences if those modifications are feasible.

"The key thing for carriers is, once the process starts, they want to know how many hoops they have to jump through," said Mr. Lord. "And there has to be an end date so they can build the network. So, the protocol provides that certainty."

It is unclear, however, whether the new protocol will create added costs for carriers given the need for more public consultations.

And there is no guarantee that added transparency will quell citizen complaints about carriers' network expansion plans given that the new protocol does not introduce any new rules around exposure to radio frequencies emitted by cell towers.

Beyond aesthetics of towers, citizens are increasingly complaining about alleged health risks linked to wireless antennas. Health standards governing towers are set by Health Canada and enforced by Industry Canada.

For his part, Mr. Lord said carriers exceed government health standards in most cases. He added: "There has been no international peer reviewed health study that has linked celltowers and antennas with any human disease or condition."

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