Wireless Communication Site Acquisition

When Locating These Sites, You Can't Just Phone It In.

With the awarding of personal communications system (PCS) licenses, the need for literally thousands of new wireless network sites has developed across the country. This market is a source of potential business in all geographic areas. But in the rush to offer services to the telecommunications community, real estate practitioners should not ignore the need to know telephony and how it affects site acquisition.

Recently in a trade magazine article about PCS site selection, a real estate professional stated that, "to acquire a [PCS] site you don't necessarily need to be a telecommunications person." Nothing could be further from the truth. Site acquisition for the telecommunications industry is another real estate specialty with its own parameters, just as retail, office, industrial, and investment markets have specific requirements for their respective properties. Telecommunications knowledge greatly improves the real estate professional's ability to acquire useful, useable sites for the wireless communications provider.

Telecommunications Basics
It is important to remember that access costs represent a substantial expense to wireless carriers. Doing a little homework can make a significant impression on a client's overall cost of doing business. To maximize effort, real estate professionals should master a basic understanding of the special needs of telecommunications clients.

Telephone Requirements. A wireless communications system is a network of radio transmitters (portable telephones) linked to the traditional wired communications system (telephone lines) through a series of short-range, contiguous cells that form a part of the wireless system grid.

For any site to be viable, it must have the ability to connect to the local exchange carrier (LEC) or telephone company. This connectivity will usually exist or can be created by the use of copper wires, fiber optic cable, or possibly in some locations, coaxial cable located somewhere close to the site.

Be aware, however, that some cities have alternate access providers such as fiber optic cable or cable television companies that encircle the city to provide service literally anywhere on demand. It is possible that a market could have even three or more local access providers operating and competing in the same market.

No matter who provides the access, enough capacity must be available to meet the design requirements of the site. The client or its engineering group can answer any questions concerning the telephone requirements of the site.

The real estate professional must be familiar with terms such as T1 (the service connection that connects each cell site to the local telephone company) and T-spans (multiple T1s) as these are the basic building blocks of the telephone business. Each T1 has the capacity to provide 24 voice-grade circuits. One voice-grade circuit is required for each channel in the wireless facility. The number of circuits installed will depend on the estimated use of the wireless facility.

Power Requirements. Depending on the application, power requirements can vary widely. For example, most full cellular sites require single phase 120/208 at 200 amperes. In contrast, in-building applications can be run from a single pole breaker located in the nearest lighting panel. In remote locations or where commercial power is difficult to obtain, site power can be supplied by generator or solar panels. Again, a client's engineering department can supply the necessary information for the application at hand.

Once the requirement has been determined, the location of all possible sources should be identified. After the location of the sources is known, routes of delivery to the equipment should readily present themselves.

Local Zoning and Use Permit Issues
Almost without exception, local planning authorities are becoming more rigid about the siting of wireless transmission facilities. Industry growth has outpaced many local governments' ability to understand the impact of wireless towers and, therefore, their ability to properly site and regulate them. The situation is further complicated when residents, expressing alarm over the aesthetic and feared health-related effects of cellular towers, prompt hasty, reactionary regulation. Some communities have installed moratoriums until they have time to research and formulate regulations that are fair to both the community and the industry.

It is important to meet with planning authorities at the earliest opportunity to determine their level of experience and/or requirements for the siting of wireless facilities in a particular community. Some of the issues likely to be discussed will include the client's ability to collocate with existing wireless facilities, the use of existing utility sites, and the use of commercially zoned land. During the search for acceptable locations, the requirements identified by the planning authority should be strictly observed. Planning authorities are deadly serious about these requirements and will not support any site that is in violation.

Site Identification
After identifying the area to be covered, the first sites to be considered should be "friendly sites"-existing cellular locations, existing towers (such as microwave and radio) and, generally, any structure that meets the height requirements defined by the client. (Radio towers, however, require special evaluation by the client's radio frequency engineering department.) Sites already used for wireless applications should present little problem in obtaining the necessary permits.

In addition to friendly sites, utility and commercial locations are often good choices for siting wireless facilities, because they are typically separated from single-family housing by a buffer zone of multifamily or neighborhood retail uses. This cushions the perceived impact of a wireless tower by the single-family homeowners.

Remember to be creative in locating possible sites. Antennas can be located behind panels that have been replaced with radio frequency-friendly materials and painted to match the original materials. Generally speaking, the better the site disappears into the environment, the better for all concerned.

Once a site has been identified, the next step is to contact the owners to determine if a lease is possible. Even though the client may be a well-known and financially sound wireless telecommunications provider, the owner may not be receptive to new or additional wireless carriers on the property, unless the income generated by the wireless company is meaningful to the owner.

Lease rates for a typical site are not usually a function of size. It is not uncommon to lease 2,400 square feet of space in an urban area for the same amount as 10,000 square feet in a rural area. Lease rates, depending on the area, can run from $200 per month to $1,000 per month or more. Purchase prices of land, however, usually are at market rates for the area in question.

Collocation
To minimize the propagation of a "steel forest" of towers, most communities require applicants to exhaust all possible avenues for sharing space on existing towers. Determining factors include the availability of space on the tower, the tower owner's ability to lease space, the tower's structural capacity, radio frequency interference, geographic service area requirements, mechanical and electrical incompatibilities, the comparative costs of collocation and new construction, and any FCC limitations on tower sharing.

Some ordinances name the regional or state communications division as responsible for tracking the availability of suitable sharing space on towers. All local regulations should be developed in line with such agencies. In Palm Beach, Florida, for example, tower applicants must send a certified mail notice to all other tower users in the area, stating their siting needs and/or sharing capabilities in an effort to encourage tower sharing. Applicants cannot be denied or deny space on a tower unless mechanical, structural, or regulatory factors prevent them from allowing collocation. In short, competing wireless providers cannot lock each other out of the market.

Public Concerns
Real estate practitioners or their telecommunications clients must be prepared to answer questions at planning hearings or neighborhood meetings. Two common areas of concern are general planning recommendations such as screening, landscaping, and setbacks and public concerns about electromagnetic fields (EMF).

The screening, landscaping, and setback requirements are fairly easy issues to solve-the requirements are usually identified by local codes. Clients will often change their typical screening and landscaping design to meet local codes or a neighborhood association's reasonable request.

The health risks associated with EMFs are the second greatest source of opposition to the siting of cellular towers-especially from neighboring property owners. The reasons relate to both personal safety and the perceived impact on property values.

EMFs are divided into two basic categories: ionizing and nonionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation includes X rays and gamma rays. Nonionizing radiation, the category to which cellular telephones, PCS handsets, radio and TV broadcasting stations, and satellite stations belong, is considered less powerful, because it does not strip the electrons from the atoms to form highly reactive particles known as ions. Instead, it harnesses energy generated from the vibrations of molecules to transfer information to a receiver.

During the last several decades, scientists have conducted more than 1,000 studies, some of which have correlated nonionizing EMF sources to higher incidences of cancer among children living in close proximity to an EMF source. None of these studies, however, have shown a specific correlation between cancer and nonionizing electromagnetic radiation levels generated by a cellular communication facility or device. Similarly, no scientific research has proven them to be completely safe.

To answer questions responsibly, real estate practitioners should educate themselves about EMF radiation. Comparative information on cellular facilities and their handsets, explained in everyday terms, is available from Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in Washington, D.C., at (202) 785-0081. More technical information is available from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in New York at (212) 642-4900. ANSI has published the standards of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in IEEE Standard for Safety Levels with Respect to Human Exposure to Radio Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, 3 KHz to 300 GHz, 1992.

Flexibility Is Key
In reviewing an area for the siting of a wireless facility, practitioners should never adopt the attitude that a client can use only one site. Locating all possible sites and considering the above issues is the fairest and most satisfying approach to solve the site location problem.

As the wireless telecommunications field expands, the available talent pool will be severely taxed or even depleted entirely. Invariably, some telecommunications organizations will lack the necessary depth of experience within their management levels. Real estate professionals could experience difficulty in presenting creative alternatives or factual field information. Therefore, they should be prepared to meet the audience at whatever level of experience they possess.

David A. Love, CCIM

David A. Love, CCIM, is real estate administrator for 360° Communications Company in Chicago. His responsibilities have included site acquisition in Las Vegas. He is currently assigned to the South Carolina market.