Welcome to Wired Spokane, circa 2005.
In every home, there’s a bunch of mobile or cellular phones. Mom, dad and the kids have their own - their own phone numbers, too.
It’s a wild, digital world with televisions transformed into data consoles - boxes that deliver view-on-demand movies or tailored news packages shipped via Internet computers every few hours.
This vision of the future needs only “cyberwiring” to come true.
For connections to happen quickly and simply, there has to be a system and a set of communications links.
In a worst-case scenario, the cyberwiring of cities like Spokane could produce a patchwork grid of antennae, radio towers and cellular transmitters dotting the urban landscape.
To avoid overbuilding eyesores, cities like Spokane are trying to catch their breath and find the right guidelines for the next 10 years of communication systems growth.
Last month, the Spokane City Council ordered a two-month freeze on the installation of cellular phone antennae in residential areas.
During that time, the city’s Plan Commission is charged with defining how those systems are built, where they go and the level of maintenance their operators must provide.
“Basically, we have an ancient zoning code that did not anticipate the technology changes we’re now going through,” said Plan Commission President Jim Kolva.
Spokane County planners are also revising their dated wireless equipment installation guidelines, but no freeze on towers or antennae has been declared.
The Federal Communications Commission decides how many phone companies offer wireless or cellular phone service within a given area. But city and county governments can control local impacts by establishing guidelines.
There are about 10 cellular phone transmitters inside the Spokane city limits. Another dozen or so are located in unincorporated areas of the county.
Two more are being sought, one each by cellular providers AT&T; Wireless and AirTouch Cellular (formerly US West Cellular).
Both firms are expected to propose more towers and cellular transmitters over the next few years.
That’s because three companies - Sprint Spectrum, GTE and Western Wireless - have announced plans to enter Spokane in the next year to compete for wireless customers. All three will be competing with a slightly different type of phone technology, called Personal Communication Service (PCS).
In effect, PCS is just another kind of cellular phone. But it uses lower power than the 100-watt cellular tower or transmitter.
Lower power has to be overcome by having more transmitters to cover wireless customers in any one area, said Lisa Bowersock, a spokesperson for AirTouch Cellular.
“For the personal communication system to provide complete coverage, the number I’ve seen is that it takes two to three times as many transmitters as the cellular system has,” Bowersock said.
In remote areas, phone companies like to place their transmitters on poles or 100-foot-high towers. In crowded areas, wireless system transmitters are frequently placed on tall buildings or on industrial structures, like water towers.
Without written guidelines, it’s possible a city like Spokane could have a cellular or wireless transmitter on nearly every block, officials say.
Issues to be addressed by the Plan Commission range from health concerns and aesthetics to finding a way to make rival companies share transmission towers.
Spokane will watch what happens in the Puget Sound cities of Medina and Lynnwood, both of which declared similar tower freezes this year. In February, the Medina City Council ordered a six-month moratorium. The affluent Bellevue suburb is the site of the new home being built by Microsoft mogul Bill Gates. “Rather than just the two cellular companies we have in Medina now, in a few years we will be looking at eight to nine wireless service providers,” said Kirk Wines, Medina city attorney.
Since the freeze, one of the companies trying to install a personal communication service system there, Sprint Spectrum, has sued, arguing Medina can’t hold up a project already approved by a federal license.
No lawsuit has resulted from Spokane’s moratorium, and the council hopes careful planning now will keep future clashes from occurring.
The consumer appetite for wireless technology continues to grow.
As more users plug into the system, companies avoid gridlock by adding more transmitters, said AirTouch Cellular’s Bowersock.
While the number of transmitters may never hit the one-on-every-block scenario, even without restrictions, area planners need to choose between a relaxed approach or tight, anti-proliferation standards.
At a minimum, Spokane’s Plan Commission is looking for ways to ensure new towers and transmitters are as inconspicuous as possible.
“One goal is to define locations where they (phone companies) can find water tanks for the towers,” said city Planning Director Charlie Dotson. “That’s one way of making them invisible.”
Bowersock called Spokane’s moratorium “very understandable.”
“Cities are seeing a tremendous land rush toward these services by many new companies,” she said. “Taking a pause is a way of stepping back and reviewing the regulatory landscape before they move forward.”
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