The Trade-off: Land for Fewer Dropped Calls

With 171 million wireless subscribers in the United States, it is no surprise that the number of cellular phone transmission towers grew from 22,663 in 1995 to 104,288 in 2000. [1] These towers range from fifteen to twenty stories tall, and can make quite a statement when added to a city block or neighborhood park. [2] Residents of cities all across America have protested the planting of these unsightly towers in their neighborhoods, but the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association has reported that "dead spots and dropped calls can be eliminated only by new cell sites." [3] Faced with that reality, we are forced to decide which is the lesser of two evils: dropped calls or backyard barbeques next to a cell phone tower.

No matter how much people refuse to live without wireless technology, the common reaction of communities is to keep those cell towers as far away from their homes as possible. [4] It is not just the size of the monstrosities that bothers people: cell phone towers over 200 feet tall must be lighted so as to be visible by aircraft flying above them. [5] Wireless companies are aware that they are not a welcomed presence in communities, and they repeatedly face the public relations circus that comes as a result of protests to placing more towers wherever they can legally do so.

However, they are not forced to accept no for an answer if the municipality denies them access to its land. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that ordinances are actionable if they prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services. [6] Wireless telecommunications company Nextel West Corporation sued the Unity Township and its Zoning Hearing Board when it was denied permission to build a 250-foot radio tower on private property in the Township. [7] The Third Circuit reversed a summary judgment decision against Nextel, allowing the case to go to trial and be decided on its merits. [8] Nextel claims that Unity Township, a Pennsylvania city, violated the Telecommunications Act by attempting to regulate the towers through ordinances prohibiting them. [9] It will be interesting to see how this case unfolds and whether a Nextel-friendly ruling will prompt more wireless companies to take similar action, pressuring local legislatures to turn a deaf ear to their residents’ petitions.

In Berkeley, California, the city government set up restrictions on cell phone towers based on health and aesthetic concerns. [10] Due to these restrictions, Berkeley’s cell phone coverage has been "notoriously spotty" and new towers have only been approved in the Berkeley flatlands. [11] Despite the lack of coverage, residents are still in support of setting up many hurdles for wireless companies to overcome before obtaining a permit for a new tower. [12] Berkeley residents fear that the radiation emitted from cell phone towers poses a health risk, although scientific findings have reported the contrary. [13] Whether Berkeley’s health-related arguments will withstand a lawsuit based on the Telecommunications Act is yet to be determined. [14]

On the flip side, attempts are being made to give the towers more aesthetic appeal. A tower in Shaler Township, Pennsylvania was converted to look like a bell tower. [15] And companies are looking to the alternative of using antennas on road signs and church steeples. [16] Still, it is not clear that these ideas are spreading quickly enough in response to people’s concerns about losing valuable land to a very noticeable monument.

Unless the land is a historical landmark or has other significant meaning, it is necessary for municipalities to succumb to the zoning demands of allowing cell towers into their neighborhoods. Without strong evidence that the radiation emitted from the towers poses any kind of health risk, the technological demand of cell phone towers is too great to disallow due to the inconvenience it poses to residents. The wireless business does not appear to be declining anytime soon, and as a result, sacrifices must be made in order to keep this technology in our lives. The construction for each tower is a very expensive undertaking by the wireless companies, and until better technology is developed, this is the only option for continued and improved wireless service. Cell phones are more than a technological luxury, they give citizens a safety blanket in times of emergency, and it should not be one that people are willing to part with just to get a better view.


[1] Craig Smith, Unsightly towers necessary for cell phone communication, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Online, Dec. 6, 2004, available at (last visited Oct. 28, 2007).

[2] Richard Quinn, New cell towers, citizen protests rising together in Virginia Beach,, Oct. 7, 2007, available at (last visited Oct. 28, 2007).

[3] Smith, supra, note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] 47 U.S.C.S. § 332(c)(7)(B)(i) (LexisNexis 2007).

[7] Nextel W. Corp v. Unity Twp., 282 F.3d 257 (2002).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Carolyn Jones, Berkeley council takes no vote on cell-phone towers,, Oct. 24, 2007, available at (last visited Oct. 28, 2007).

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Smith, supra, note 1.

[16] Id.