Wireless data communications technologies have opened a world of possibilities to local governments seeking to extend their Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) to new locations. Before the advent of fast digital radio technologies, many local governments were at the mercy of telephone (telco) and cable

TV companies for the communications connections they needed. Today, digital radio offers speeds of up to 3 MB over short distances at consumer prices, 10 MB over longer distances for a one-time price equivalent to that of a small server and up to 47 MB using “”line of sight”” for less than the cost of a year’s lease on a telco-supplied T-1 line. More importantly, wireless data connections offer the consistency and reliability necessary for mission-critical applications. Lots of bandwidth, low operating cost and high availability are the hallmarks of a great technology. The only problem with a great technology is that sooner or later everybody wants to get in on the act.

Electromagnetic soup

I’m sure the first fellow to send a spam e-mail message probably never imagined that he would be taking a step that would some day threaten to bring about the death of e-mail as a viable business technology. It is with this same innocent abandon that many organizations are sticking up antenna structures to accommodate their burgeoning network of wireless MAN sites. Already, some communities are fairly bristling with communications antennas, some of which attempt to reach speeds available only with “”line of sight,”” perched atop structures that only a science fiction movie producer could appreciate. Aside from the obvious esthetic concerns, many citizens are also expressing apprehension about the possible health effects that could arise from swimming in a perpetual soup of electromagnetic radiation emanating from these antennas.

Local government technology people should also be concerned about this disturbing trend. The fact is that when placed too close to each other, even antennas operating at different frequencies can conflict. There is only so much real estate out there for antennas and with the low cost of wireless hardware it won’t be long before the morass of electromagnetic radiation begins to affect the reliability of existing and historically dependable installations.

Typically in these situations the rule is that the last installed has to fix the problem. The trouble with this philosophy is that proving who is causing the problem can sometimes be a difficult and costly task.

The folks at Industry Canada who are responsible for managing the radio spectrum have obviously considered many of these concerns, and their response was the March 28, 2003 announcement of the National Antenna Tower Policy Review Committee.

This eight-member committee has been charged with the responsibility of assisting a federal contractor in conducting a review of antenna siting and approval policies. The committee includes an epidemiologist, two urban planning specialists, the mayor of Saanich, B.C. and, most importantly, a telecommunications specialist from the City of Calgary. Even more astonishing than the degree of affinity the committee has for local government is the fact that no fewer than four of the eight members are from western Canada.

Speak up on the issue

Foremost among the issues to be addressed by the Antenna Tower Policy Review is the local government consultation process on the siting of antenna tower structures.

While consultation is already part of the current process, many local governments have found themselves relatively powerless to respond to the concerns of citizens who are upset about the effect on their neighborhood when a shiny new galvanized spire suddenly appears in the middle of their view of the mountains.

More importantly, local governments need to have a say in the principles that drive the sharing of antenna structures in order to avoid the utility company practice of staking out territory for the purpose of securing room for future growth or locking out competitors.

Local governments have the opportunity to comment on the Antenna Tower Policy Review by sending their input via email to antenna@unb.ca or by fax to the Antenna Consultation Office at (506) 453-4548.

This is an a unique opportunity for all local governments in Canada to have their say on a technology that is likely to explode in popularity before it, like spam e-mail, begins feeding on the host.

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