Leveling the Field, Holding the Cell Tower Installers Accountable

This blog has had a huge increase in web traffic over the last month and thanks to all who took a look.  Based on metrics we receive, most of the traffic came from outside Palos Verdes likely from civic groups and even municipalities themselves.  It’s clear there is a real demand for knowledge and it’s no surprise to us.  Knowledge is the key to fighting intrusive cell tower installations.

To be blunt, the wireless industry’s business model counts on uniformed residents and intimidated municipal staff.  Few people want a commercial telecommunications facility near their home, let alone in their front yard.  The industry and its sympathizers count on opposition ignorance to maintain the false impression that there is nothing they can do.  Our first-hand experience has been with Crown Castle, a multi-billion dollar cell tower corporation headquartered out of Texas.  By most accounts it is representative of industry behavior.

The key to protecting your city and your neighborhoods is knowledge.  You fight these tactics by exposing and documenting every discrepancy, every false claim, and every exaggeration.  Trust us, there is no shortage and this is the stuff that influences municipal decision makers and makes or breaks lawsuits.  We’ve included a sampling of our findings in Palos Verdes below and we really doubt things are any different in other communities.

The long list of “discrepancies”

With that preamble, let’s get to the list.  This isn’t meant to be exhaustive but to give those interested a taste of what we’ve found digging into Crown Castle’s submissions, installations, and tactics on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

All of this has been meticulously documented; much of it has been submitted to the corresponding municipality.  The rest is available as needed if things get ugly in the future.  Some of it has been discussed on this blog previously and we’ve provided links in places.  Some we are holding close to the chest.  Whether these discrepancies were intentional is really irrelevant, this stuff is damning even if its cause is just plain old carelessness.

Site Drawings and Documentation

  • False photo simulations that show proposed installed equipment much smaller than actuality (link)
  • Prominent equipment and cables missing from photo simulations
  • Distorted, not to scale drawings showing proposed equipment too small (link)
  • Distorted drawings that show the existing infrastructure (e.g streetlights) out of proportion thus making the proposed equipment look smaller by comparison (link)
  • Prominent equipment and cables missing from drawings (link)
  • Contradictory drawings, discrepancies between equipment sizes shown on different pages of submitted plans
  • Site plans missing key required elements such as existing and proposed utility routing and adjacent land use

Site Technical Documentation

  • Changing service metrics resulting in a 20 dB drop in “existing” coverage map levels without a corresponding shift in service target levels (RSSI to RSRP) (link)
  • Different “required” service levels in Palos Verdes Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes, PVE is 10 dB higher than RPV without rationale (link)
  • Wildly inconsistent “existing” service coverage maps submitted between Palos Verdes Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes despite both showing the same geographic area (link)
  • Missing known AT&T-owned sites in submitted “existing” network facility maps (link)
  • Missing known AT&T-owned site coverage in “existing” service coverage maps
  • An “existing” coverage map submitted as 1900 MHz service that actually depicts 2100 MHz
  • Cherry-picked worst-case coverage maps from a single frequency band (out of four active bands) misleadingly portrayed as representing “existing” coverage
  • Incorrect antenna orientation shown on proposed facility maps
  • Service coverage maps alleged to depict “proposed” coverage modeled with only one of the two site antennas active (link)
  • Wrong antennas used in RF Emission reports thus reporting inaccurate values

Questionable Legal Claims and Behavior

  • False legal claims that new sites fall under “Section 6409” and thus can’t be denied by the city (link)
  • False claims that a 90 day shot clock applies to brand new sites
  • Mistaken statements regarding a municipality’s right to regulate these sites under PUC Section 7901
  • Mistaken claims regarding the existence of a “significant gap” based on cherry-picked frequency bands and incomplete coverage maps (link)
  • Underground installation mock-ups using unnecessary intrusive ventilation stacks to make the city-preferred option look unappealing (link) (link)
  • Excessively large and 75% empty ground-mounted cabinets claimed as required after Rancho Palos Verdes rejected pole-mounted equipment (link)
  • Excessively large antennas claimed as required in Rancho Palos Verdes despite using antennas one-third the size in Palos Verdes Estates (link)

Site Approval and Community Engagement Tactics

  • Repeatedly failing to provide residents timely notification for public hearings
  • Construction crews misinforming residents when queried as to what they were doing (link)
  • Installations and work performed beyond that authorized by the city
  • Permanent installations constructed as the “mock-up”, then leaving it in place for months longer then required when not immediately approved (link)
  • Underground fiber installed throughout the city before a single antenna installation was approved despite city objections and concerns (link)
  • Failure to provide alleged analysis for alternate locations despite promises to do so (link)
  • Failure to involve AT&T in public hearings or resident meetings despite requests to do so

Issues with Existing Installations

  • Installations on utility poles in violation of CPUC General Order 95 Section 94.4 (safety and reliability regulations) (link)
  • Highly intrusive cable routing and extremely poor workmanship on existing sites (link) (link)
  • Amateurish paint jobs using hardware store spray cans resulting in fading, streaks, uneven coverage, and overspray (link)
  • Existing installations that are far more intrusive than depicted in submitted photo simulations (link) (link)
  • Existing installations that don’t match submitted drawings

Why all this matters

Pretty interesting list, huh?  For those of you still wondering why all this matters we recommend you spend a little time reviewing Verizon vs. Fairfax County (E.D. Virginia, 2015) (available here).  Verizon sued the County after it rejected a cell tower installation under its wireless facility ordinance.  It’s a recent case that’s highly relevant as it discusses LTE technology, a cell tower installer middleman, lousy documentation, and unsubstantiated technical claims.  The court found for Fairfax County on all counts and absolutely shredded Verizon on multiple fronts.  Similar to T-Mobile et al vs. San Francisco, it was a total wipeout.

The court had some really interesting things to say.  First off, the court openly rejected Verizon’s standing in the case as a cell tower installer middleman was the applicant.  The court also questioned the depth of Verizon’s involvement as virtually all the work was done by the middleman with Verizon seemingly out of the loop.  Does this sound familiar?  It sure ought to.  AT&T has been completely absent from the Palos Verdes cell tower project.

Crown Castle repeatedly makes claims allegedly on AT&T’s behalf, yet AT&T itself has been nowhere to be found in this whole fiasco.  This despite the fact the PVE Planning Commission has now twice requested greater AT&T involvement.  The Commission has requested both an AT&T presence at the hearings and in meetings with residents.  Neither has happened.  We don’t blame AT&T as we wouldn’t want to be directly involved with this either.  Unfortunately for them, the Fairfax County decision shows Crown Castle’s failure to engage AT&T could be really problematic.

Next, the court took Verizon to the woodshed for poor documentation, conflicting claims, and a general making-it-up-as-they-went-along approach.  The court outright rejected Verizon’s “expert” claims regarding location requirements and lack of feasible alternatives as lacking substance.  The court praised the citizen group for their detailed records and documentation, and painted a sharp contrast to Verizon’s behavior.   Déjà vu, anyone?

The court also tackled the issue of minimum LTE signal levels.  Verizon’s expert stated under oath that the required LTE signal level for indoor coverage was -95 dBm RSRP, 20 dB (100 times) lower that Crown Castle’s current claim in Palos Verdes Estates.  Despite this, the court still found there wasn’t a significant gap even at these low levels.  (Side note: We now have an AT&T engineering report from another jurisdiction where AT&T states the minimum LTE signal level is -96 dBm RSRP directly contradicting Crown Castle’s “required” signal claims in Palos Verdes on their behalf.  Stay tuned.)

In short, Verizon went in unprepared with sloppy documentation, arbitrary technical claims, and an argument from authority.  They lost because the County and residents had done their homework.

 

Knowledge is power as they say, and in this case it’s certainly true.  The wireless industry counts on you being uninformed and intimidated.  It doesn’t take much digging to bring down the whole house of cards.

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Palos Verdes Cell Tower Hall of Shame

Update (9/17/2016): This is one of our most popular posts.  We’ve promoted it in honor of Thursday’s huge win in the California Court of Appeals.  The court fully upheld municipal regulation of cell towers despite three cell tower companies (T-mobile, Crown Castle, and Extenet) ganging up and attempting to overturn San Francisco’s comprehensive wireless ordinance.  It was a historic loss for the wireless industry, and solidified the important findings of Sprint vs. Palos Verdes Estates (9th Circuit, 2009).  We’ve posted T-mobile et al vs. San Francisco here.

Prior to January 2016, Rancho Palos Verdes had essentially no cell tower regulations.  As you would expect, the carriers and cell tower installers abused the situation to their advantage and things got completely out of control.  The same can happen if a city has a good ordinance but it isn’t enforced.  Consider this a cautionary tale.

We’ve previously written regarding the astronomical number of cell towers in Rancho Palos Verdes, and how most were thrown up in the cheapest and sloppiest manner possible.  There was no attempt to minimize intrusiveness, screen sites, or architecturally match them to the existing structures.  In addition, there was no attempt to collocate sites or otherwise minimize the number of installations.

Here’s a map of all cell sites in the Public Right of Way (PROW) in RPV.  The interactive versions can be found online here.  (The site loads slowly, ten seconds or so.)  This map does not include sites on private property or public property that is not part of the PROW.

rancho palos verde cell tower map

Map of sites in the PROW in RPV.  Different colors represent different service carriers, yellow means there are multiple sites at a single location.

The map is pretty incredible, particularly with Crown Castle claiming ATT alone needs 30 new sites, most located within the heart of residential neighborhoods.  Here’s a breakdown of the current status:

  • Over 140 cell sites in the PROW
  • One cell site for every 300 residents
  • One cell site for every 115 homes
  • One cell site every 61 acres
  • 10.4 cell sites per square mile
  • More than 50 new sites pending or proposed (that we know of)

RPV’s new wireless ordinance (link) will ensure sites meet comprehensive design, architectural compatibility, and location requirements going forward.  As a reminder to why RPV needed a new ordinance we’ll highlight (lowlight?) some of our favorites here.  With 140 available, there are plenty of bad examples to choose from.

 The new ordinance poster child

ugly crown castle cell tower 1

This is on Hawthorne Blvd at the entrance to Hesse Park.  It is one of the nicest parks in the city and this sits right outside the City Council chambers.  Fortunately, the City Council saw it every time they pulled into the parking lot and was continuously reminded why RPV needed a new ordinance.  It was just a bus stop sign at one point.

 ugly crown castle cell tower 2

Same site next to Hesse Park with no screening whatsoever.  Note cable workmanship.  Note there is still another bus stop sign post right next to it that for some reason was not consolidated.  The box now has a giant “Radio Frequency Hazard!” sticker on it.

Welcome to Rancho Palos Verdes, home of the ugly cell tower

ugly crown castle cell tower 3

“Welcome to Rancho Palos Verdes” on PV Drive South right at the border of San Pedro. This is what visitors entering our city from San Pedro first see.  Here’s a close-up.

Crown castle workmanship 2

Aside from being really ugly, there is lots else going on here:

  • Crown Castle increased the antenna size but the cables didn’t reach so they just stretched them across unsupported (black wires from pole to antenna bottom)
  • It could have been flush mounted to pole above cables to be less intrusive instead of extended out on long cross arm
  • Violates CPUC General Order 95 (safety and reliability regulations) Section 94.4 as it’s too close to the cables

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Crown Castle’s Untrue Legal Claims

We’ve had this blog online since May.  In the last twelve weeks we’ve documented numerous troubling aspects of Crown Castle’s cell tower deployment in Palos Verdes.  So far we’ve covered:

  • Mistaken photo simulations that show equipment smaller than actuality, and are missing important components entirely (here)
  • “Not to scale” drawings with equipment size distorted and appearing smaller than actuality (here)
  • Tactics apparently intended to keep residents in the dark about the coming cell towers until the last minute (here)
  • Cheap and lazy designs with no regard for aesthetics or property values (here)
  • Questionable “mock-ups” that make more expensive configurations preferred by the city look far more intrusive than they really are (here)
  • Awful workmanship on existing sites, particularly with cable routing and “spray can” paint jobs (here)
  • Existing installations on utility poles that violate CPUC safety and reliability regulations (here)
  • Completely unsupported statments that anything other than the cheap installation they had already planned was “infeasible” (here)
  • Mistaken and highly questionable technical claims regarding existing coverage and an alleged “significant gap” (here)

It’s quite a list, and as you can see from the links, we’ve posted plenty to back it all up.  You might think there isn’t much more to cover.  You’d be wrong.  Fortunately, we like to write and it looks like we’ll have plenty more opportunities.

 False Claims Regarding Section 6409

In 2012, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.  Buried deep within the act was gift to the wireless industry, no doubt payback for campaign contributions.  It’s known as section 6409 and it significantly limits a city’s regulatory authority with regards to modifications on existing sites.

streetlight

Definitely not an “existing wireless tower or base station” despite Crown Castle’s claims.

In short, a city cannot deny permission to modify an existing wireless tower (built specifically for antennas) or a base station (a structure that houses licensed wireless equipment) provided the modifications don’t exceed certain size limits.  Section 6409, and the subsequent FCC rulemaking that clarified some terms, make it unambiguously clear that it only applies to existing sites.  There is no confusion or controversy on this.

Crown Castle is attempting to deploy 22 new sites in Palos Verdes Estates and 26 new sites (so far) in Rancho Palos Verdes.  As we’ve stated before, many are in the heart of residential neighborhoods, most of those are right in front of homes.  All of these are brand new sites; none of them are “existing wireless towers or base stations” under Section 6409.  It’s crystal clear, section 6409 does not apply to these sites.  The City has the full right to deny these sites on aesthetic grounds under both state and federal law.  Crown Castle apparently wants city staff to think otherwise.

Mistatments when the City is ignorant of the law

As we’ve discussed before, Crown Castle seems to have a habit of misstating the law to city staff who aren’t experts and don’t know better.  One of Crown Castle’s prior entities, Newpath Networks of California, had virtually raised this to an art form.  In one of the most egregious examples, they convinced the city government of Davis, California into believing their 37-site proposed cell tower deployment was exempt from Davis’s wireless ordinance.  They did this by erroneously claiming only CPUC could regulate the sites under newly passed regulations.

After public outcry, Davis wised up and revoked the permits that had been issued based on these statements.  Newpath sued, and lost.  The whole ordeal caused such a stink that CPUC actually vacated the regulations (GO-170) that Newpath had referenced.  If you check out press accounts of the debacle you’ll find at least one Newpath name very familiar to those following the current Palos Verdes deployment.

In this case, they are trying to insinuate that these brand new sites fall under Section 6409 and thus the city can’t deny them and must approve them.  Of course it’s blatantly untrue, and in our opinion, it’s a telling sign that something really stinks.

 False Section 6409 Claims in Palos Verdes Estates

Palos Verdes Estates requires a site justification for new proposed cell towers.  The justification provided by Crown Castle was inadequate, mostly copy and paste claims of legal entitlement without any real justification for each of the highly intrusive sites proposed.  Under a section entitled “Applicable Federal Law”, they trot out some interesting claims regarding Section 6409 (full document here):

Crown Castle false 6409 claim 1

Note the area highlighted in the red box in particular, as the audacity of their claims is truly breathtaking.  First they claim this a “qualifying collocation facility” which is blatantly false.  This was from a brand new site application in lower Lunada Bay.  The same language is included in all the new site applications.

Next they claim, “an argument may be made that the Project qualifies for ministerial approval under the Spectrum Act”.  An interesting choice of words, “an argument may be made…”

We agree that an argument may be made; an utterly false argument seemingly intended to lead city staff into thinking they have no choice but to approve these sites.  For those who aren’t up on legalese, “ministerial approval” means “a statutory mandate without exercise of personal judgment or discretion”.  Completely false but not surprising in the least based on what we’ve seen in the past.

 The same false claims in Rancho Palos Verdes

Under RPV’s new comprehensive wireless ordinance, applicants are also required to prepare a site justification and to specifically state the applicable laws that apply.  Here’s an application excerpt submitted by Crown Castle for a brand new installation proposed for a residential streetlight (full document here).

Crown Castle false 6409 claim 2

Knock us over with a feather, they again mistakenly claim Section 6409 applies.  Of the 26 newly filed brand new sites submitted to RPV, they’ve wrongly claimed section 6409 applies in about half of them.  They also incorrectly claim a 90 day shot clock here rather than the correct 150 day shot clock, but we’ll leave that for a future post.

Note above where RPV requires a description supporting their selections in Exhibit A, here’s an excerpt of what was submitted (full document here):

Crown Castle false 6409 claim 3

It’s the same copy and paste claims of section 6409 applicability we saw over in PVE.  Check out the big bold “may not deny, and shall approve“.  Since section 6409 doesn’t apply this is completely irrelevant.  Note in the red box that here they omitted the ridiculous “an argument can be made…” stuff probably realizing they wouldn’t be able to get away with that wording again.

We obtained RPV’s notice of incomplete application (it’s a public record along with the other documents shown here) as we wanted to ensure the City called them out on this garbage.  We were gratified to see that not only did RPV’s legal team conclusively state Section 6409 did not apply, but they had this to say regarding Crown Castle’s copy and paste claims of entitlement:

Applicant should appropriately limit the scope of its responses to the questions presented.

That looks like lawyer talk for calling BS to us.

What this says about Crown Castle

It seems to us that Crown Castle thinks this is some sort of game.  To date it’s probably worked far more often than not, as we doubt most cities have the legal expertise to challenge this stuff.  There seems to be no downside for them as the only thing that happens if they are caught is that they are told to go back and fix it.

We’ve meticulously documented this to inform Palos Verdes residents, as a resource for those in other communities, and also to ensure it’s not forgotten in the event this whole mess turns ugly.  Palos Verdes residents can be assured we will double-check every single claim of legal entitlement, site intrusiveness, or technical feasibility.  Crown Castle has shown over and over that their statements need to be verified.

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The Saga of Miraleste Hills

Crown Castle recently put in a cell tower within the Miraleste Hills residential neighborhood of Rancho Palos Verdes.  Unfortunately, the site was approved prior to the tough wireless facility ordinance passed back in January, so it wasn’t held to RPV’s new stringent design and location requirements.  It is however, a shining example of what we’ve come to expect regarding tactics and workmanship.

Let’s start with the photo simulation Crown Castle submitted and posted at the location in lieu of an actual physical mock-up.  (Note – real mock-ups are required under the new ordinance.)  This was at the corner of Crownview and Highpoint in RPV back in August-September 2015.

Miraleste Hills 1

 

Here’s a reproduction of the photo simulation that was obtained from the drawing package submitted to RPV.  Note the poor resolution, you would think a multi-billion dollar corporation could afford something better.  The Kodak Brownie I had as a kid took better pictures than this.

Miraleste Hills 2

As to the design itself, it’s not great, but it’s not as awful as some in RPV.  Residents didn’t have an actual physical mock-up to review and the picture didn’t look terrible, so no one formally objected during the 30 day comment window.  That’s not too surprising, people are busy and they believed what they saw in the picture.  They were in for a rude surprise.

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