What are Crown Castle and AT&T up to?

Crown Castle and AT&T are attempting to install highly intrusive cell towers within residential neighborhoods throughout Palos Verdes.  Prior to this deployment, AT&T served all of Palos Verdes Estates with about a half dozen cell towers.  Now Crown Castle states AT&T has a “significant gap” in service in Palos Verdes Estates.  The only way to fix it, they claim, is with 22 new cell towers, many right in the heart of residential neighborhoods.

Think about what Crown Castle is saying.  Does it really make sense that the only way to improve cell service is with a four-fold cell tower increase, many of them literally in resident’s front yards?  Wouldn’t it seem that half a dozen strategically placed and inconspicuous new sites could be used to plug the existing gaps?  Why do they need so many and why are they in every neighborhood?

GVA mock up

Mock-up of a proposed new cell tower site in Palos Verdes Estates, homes are in close proximity behind the site.

The situation is similar in Rancho Palos Verdes where Crown Castle claims its needs 38 (!!) new sites for AT&T.  Remember that there are four major carriers and this is only for one of them.  Those who don’t subscribe to AT&T will see no benefit.

Deception Regarding “Required” Service Levels

On AT&T’s behalf, Crown Castle claims absurdly high signal levels as required for the network.  AT&T has been the silent partner in this whole fiasco, apparently preferring to let Crown Castle do its bidding.  Without getting too technical, Crown Castle claims AT&T needs a Reference Signal Received Power (RSRP) of -75 dBm thus justifying the high number of new cell towers.  With our RF engineering background we knew this level was ridiculous and about 100 times higher than what is typically provided.  (Note that dB’s are logarithmic so 10x = 10 dB, 100x = 20 dB, etc.)  We challenged them on this before the PVE Planning Commission; they claimed we didn’t understand it.  They were wrong.

To see if AT&T provided these “required” high signal levels in less affluent communities, we did drive tests in Wilmington and Harbor City, California.  Both are within a few miles of Palos Verdes but are economically disadvantaged.  Wilmington’s median household income is about 75% of the California median; Harbor City’s is about 90%.

Here’s our result, only dots that show up as light green or dark green meet the level Crown Castle claims AT&T “requires” in Palos Verdes Estates.

wilmington drive map

Drive map results conducted in Wilmington (Los Angeles), California on 8/21/2016.  Crown Castle’s “required” signal levels in Palos Verdes Estates is -75 dBm (dark green and light green).  Of the measured data points in Wilmington, only 8% meet the requirement. 

harbor-city-drive-map

Drive map results conducted in Harbor City (Los Angeles), California on 8/28/2016.  Of the  measured data points in Harbor City, only 5%  meet the requirement.

 Clearly AT&T does not provide the signal levels in these less affluent communities that it claims are absolutely “required” in PVE.  Based on this investigation, and coupled with the false claims and misleading behavior we’ve documented in the past, we now believe their required signal level claims are blatant deceptions.  So then why are they doing it?  Why are they demanding to place cell towers in every neighborhood in our community using the pretext of ridiculously high required signal levels?  No surprise, follow the money.

Follow the Money

As opposed to providing “cell phone service”, Crown ‘Castle and AT&T are trying to gin up demand for expensive, high-revenue wireless data plans.  Wireless data is extremely expensive in comparison to other data services, and is a poor economic choice for those with limited disposable income.  However, wireless data delivery offers tremendous Return on Investment (ROI) opportunity provided customers can be enticed to pay the high costs.

The median household income in Palos Verdes is far above the California median, thus residents have a much higher disposable income than residents of Wilmington or Harbor City.  Crown Castle and AT&T are counting on that to sell their expensive data plans:

  • Palos Verdes Estates: median household income = 276% of state median
  • Rancho Palos Verdes: median household income = 195% of state median
  • Harbor City: median household income = 90% of state median
  • Wilmington: median household income = 75% of state median

Surprise, surprise, PVE and RPV gets 60 new cell towers as allegedly required. Wilmington and Harbor City don’t get any new towers as they apparently make do just fine with typical AT&T signal levels.  (Note that the typical signal level in these communities is around -95 dBm, 20 dB or 100 times lower than the alleged required levels in PVE.)

Just how expensive is wireless data?  The tables below compare the cost of wireless data to that of wired (cable or phone line delivered) data.  Using standard industry practices, AT&T’s wireless service plans are priced in accordance with data consumption as shown here:

wireless-data-costs

(Data rate shown is typical LTE 4G download speed based on industry tests.  If data allowance is exceeded, data rate is throttled to 2G speed (128 Kbps), approximately 1.3% of the typical 4G speed (10 Mbps)). Source: AT&T website

In comparison to wireless internet services, wired data costs are much cheaper.  When wired internet service is combined with a Wi-Fi router, customers can create an equivalent in-home wireless data service for a small fraction of the cost charged by AT&T Mobility for wireless data. (A Wi-Fi router is a one-time expense of around $30.)

wired-data-costs

Source: Cox Cable website

Take a look at the far right column in both tables.  Even using the least favorable comparison, wired data costs only 5% that of wireless data ($0.23 per Gb wired worst-case versus $4.50 per Gb wireless best case).

With less expensive and far better value alternatives available, consumers with limited disposable income (such as in Wilmington) are very unlikely to choose AT&T Mobility’s costly high data usage plans.  Thus Crown Castle and AT&T understand they must target these high revenue services toward affluent communities. Palos Verdes fits the bill perfectly.  That is why Crown Castle wants to place 60 new cell towers in Palos Verdes, any talk of “improving cell phone service” is cover for the real motive.

Conclusion

Simply put, a cell tower that serves 100 Palos Verdes customers is a far more valuable corporate asset than a cell tower that serves 100 economically-disadvantaged customers.  Crown Castle’s alleged high “required” signal levels are likely also a factor in AT&T’s marketing strategy since this will make it easier to promote high-revenue services in Palos Verdes.  As economically-disadvantaged communities aren’t market targets, there is no motivation to increase signal levels above typical industry levels.

If Crown Castle were acting as a traditional cell tower installer, this behavior would be tolerable.  There would be nothing wrong with location selection based on return on investment provided Crown Castle entered into voluntary access agreement with private landowners or public agencies.  In this type of agreement, those granting access would be free to accept or reject Crown Castle’s offerings, negotiate lease agreements, and receive fair-market compensation for use their property.  Municipalities would be free to choose if this was good for the community.

However, this is not how Crown Castle behaves.  Crown Castle uses its status as a “public utility” to involuntarily force municipalities into granting rent-free access to the Public Right of Way (ROW), often in highly-intrusive locations.  Using this status, it claims a legal entitlement to locate in the ROW free of charge even when the governing municipality strongly objects, as they often do.  Crown Castle and its predecessors have taken legal action against multiple municipalities that they believed infringed on this ROW-access entitlement.They’ve lost most of the court cases.

We strongly believe Crown Castle’s behavior violates state law (Public Utility Code Sections 451 and 453) and are preparing a complaint with CPUC.  They can’t claim to be a public utility and receive ROW access rights on one hand, then discriminate when selecting deployments on the other hand.  State law is clear, public utilities can’t pick and choose who they serve but must provide service and facilities in a fair and equitable manner.   We’ll keep you apprised of any developments, more info is available here.

 Postscript

We did want to follow up with an important point.  Neither PVE or RPV are under any obligation to approve cell towers intended to provide a competitive advantage to a wireless carrier.  Federal law is very clear that cities must only approve sites to remedy a significant gap in service.  In court cases where a significant gap has been found, it typically involves thousands of people with poor or non-existent service.  No court has ever found a city must approve sites to provide these ridiculously high allegedly required signal levels.

State law is also clear that cities can deny sites in the ROW on aesthetic grounds under the “incommode the public use of roads” provisions of the Public Utility Code.  This is despite Crown Castle’s claim to be a public utility.  They are on shaky ground and their bluster notwithstanding, they know it.  Many cities including Irvine, Newport Beach, and Calabasas have fought them and won.

For clarity, we have no objection to a limited number of new sites inconspicuously placed to plug legitimate gaps in service (i.e. low signal levels that impede call placement or data connections).  We will not accept highly intrusive cell towers placed in the heart of residential neighborhoods, particularly when their primary intent is to maximize AT&T’s revenue and Crown Castle’s return on investment.

(9/18 Ed note: We’ve updated the penultimate paragraph to reflect PUC 7901 rather than PUC 7901.1 based on the 9/15/2016 T-Mobile et al vs. San Francisco decision.)

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