Silicon Valley Plagued by Mobile Woes

Published October 10, 2008

Civic leaders in Silicon Valley are considering their options in light of a new report exposing myriad technical problems plaguing mobile phone users in the region, while analysts point out local governments are a big part of the problem.

The Cell Phone Coverage Project report from Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a local community coalition, offers reasons why spotty coverage exists in the tech-heavy valley, including poor network design, overloaded voice networks, and inefficient permitting processes.

The report, co-written by Town Councilman Dean Warshawsky from Los Altos Hills and Ellen Becht from SVB Financial Group, was released on August 1 and is intended to help community leaders, residents, and service providers deal with poor cell phone service.

NIMBY Complaints

One problem the authors identified is the “not in my backyard” effect. Warshawsky and Becht examined why residents are reluctant to accommodate telecommunications infrastructure such as cell towers.

Their reasons range from issues of curbside appeal to health concerns that have long plagued the telecommunications industry. The Joint Venture report answers these concerns with pictures of well-hidden cell phone sites and medical evidence that health concerns are exaggerated.

The report concludes by calling on service providers, residents, and local officials to seek out solutions to mobile quality issues. The authors ask city leaders to produce transparent guidelines for cellular sites and move along acceptable permits as quickly as possible. They also ask telecommunications carriers to maintain complete coverage maps and to complete permit materials in a timely manner.

The report also details several ways Silicon Valley residents seeking better mobile coverage can work for improvements, through frequent discussions with local officials, complaints to service providers, and other means.

Legislators Uninformed

Warshawsky responded to questions about assigning responsibility for the problems by saying, “No single party should have full responsibility for mobile technologies.” He believes one barrier to improved infrastructure is a “lack of education” among council members in the Silicon Valley.

“I frequently speak to my fellow council members at neighboring cities and find out quickly they have limited knowledge about the subject,” stated Warshawsky.

Warshawsky noted a lack of ingenuity among some city councils regarding limitations on network infrastructure. “I feel most city governments don’t do everything they can to find creative solutions,” Warshawsky said. He noted “a small group of angry residents” can force a local government to expend “a lot of effort, energy, cooperation, and long-term thinking” before reaching consensus on what is best.

Warshawsky anticipates increasing dependence on mobile phones, wi-fi networks, and other technology in the high-growth Silicon Valley region. He said, “The amount of bandwidth required to deliver these solutions will increase dramatically,” thereby forcing cities to invest in upgraded towers and hardware. The solution, Warshawsky said, is for “people to get involved and push their carriers and local governments to address this issue.”

Permits a Big Problem

Senior analyst George Ou of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said he was surprised the report’s comments on permit problems were not placed as the primary concern for lawmakers.

“There are times when it takes 14 years to get a permit for some cell tower sites,” Ou said. He offered San Diego as an example of these permit problems, noting, “one carrier has 12 monopolies in San Diego with conditional use permits” meeting the city’s restrictive building policies.

Ou believes complaints about service coverage and networks designed for businesses are “mostly moot” at this point. He said, “cell phone companies have asked, begged, gone to court to put up cell phone towers only to be denied or delayed for years” by city governments and courts.

Ou points out the primary motivator for telecommunications development is the desire to make money, and he notes service providers don’t want “thousands of customers complaining to them every day.” Thus they try to offer the best technology possible, but local governments often stand in the way.

Regional Solutions Needed

Joint Venture Vice President and Chief Operating Office Seth Fearey says the organization’s report promotes technical creativity.

Fearey said, “It would be helpful if carriers would agree to carry each other’s traffic” to deal with problems of weak signals and networks. Such an integrated network would allow “customers of other carriers to ‘roam’ onto the network that is available” in a particular area.

Fearey and his organization say telecom improvement must be tackled from a regional perspective, and they promoted such an approach in the report. “I personally cross six political borders in my daily commute,” said Fearey. “The Bay Area consists of three large cities and almost 100 small cities and towns,” he noted.

Nicholas Katers ([email protected]) writes from Franklin, Wisconsin.