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Column: Another Reason for AT&T's Poor Wireless Service

AT&T has poor wireless service because of bad business decisions and federal regulations, not local zoning codes, says one local activist who is part of an advocacy group that says its goal is to encourage responsible oversight of wireless facilities.

[Editor's Note: The city's Planning & Zoning Commission will  at its Jan. 10 meeting. . Read more about mobile phone issues in Albany here, and click the "Keep me posted" button below for alerts when we post about this topic.]

An Albany Patch article on Nov. 28, 2011, pointed out that AT&T has . Some reader comments implied that the reason for the lack of sites is Albany’s zoning code and the way it regulates placement of cellular antennas.

In fact, the lack of AT&T sites in Albany has nothing to do with Albany’s zoning code. The reason AT&T has —and in many other places in the U.S.—is a poor business decision in 2005 to sell a large portion of what would have been AT&T’s network to T-Mobile. 

Here’s the history:

What is now AT&T is the result of the former Cingular Wireless's purchase of AT&T Wireless in 2005. At the time of that purchase, Cingular had two sites in Albany: at Town Centre shopping center on San Pablo Ave. and at St. Mary's High School on the southeast side of town. When Cingular bought AT&T, it changed the name of the new combined business to AT&T and sold the former Cingular GSM (global mobile system) network, including the two Albany sites, to T-Mobile for $2.5 billion.

The new AT&T dissolved a pre-existing joint venture between Cingular and T-Mobile in which those two carriers shared sites and divested itself of the Cingular network, which went to T-Mobile. These were among the conditions on which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the Cingular-AT&T merger. The FCC’s stated goal was to preserve competitiveness in the wireless industry and prevent any single carrier from dominating the market.

Subsequently, the new AT&T contracted to provide iPhone wireless service, knowing full well that, without the Cingular network, it did not have the capability to support the demand the iPhone would generate.  

So, yes, AT&T coverage in Albany is poor and AT&T has no sites in Albany. Why? Because AT&T gave away to T-Mobile the two sites it would have had in Albany.

Ironically, AT&T has since been trying to buy T-Mobile, presumably in part to get back at least some of the network it sold to T-Mobile at the time of the AT&T-Cingular merger. However, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit in 2011 to block this merger, and, in November, AT&T withdrew its FCC application to acquire T-Mobile.

The story of Cingular, AT&T and T-Mobile, and the musical-chairs ownership of cell sites, raises the question of to what extent regulations to preserve an ostensibly "competitive" cell phone industry are actually in the best interests of consumers.  

Arguably, a single unified nationwide cell network, similar to our single nationwide landline infrastructure, would provide better service.

With a single network using one technology, instead of the competing networks and sometimes incompatible technologies of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, MetroPCS and Sprint/Nextel (five companies now, down from what used to be seven major wireless carriers), all customers would get the same access to the physical infrastructure that transmits and receives wireless data.

As this history makes clear, our local regulations are not the reason for AT&T’s lack of cell sites in Albany.  

AT&T’s business decision and the FCC’s conditions on the AT&T-Cingular merger resulted in AT&T losing the two Cingular sites in Albany. The result of this combination of bad decision making and FCC mandates results in the city bearing an unfair burden of permitting new AT&T sites in our community, which already has more cell sites per capita than surrounding cities, to make up for the fact that AT&T had sites here and gave them up.

Nan Wishner
Albany Residents for Responsible Oversight of Wireless (ARROW)

Read more about mobile phone issues in Albany here, and click the "Keep me posted" button below for alerts when Patch posts about this topic.

John Kindle January 11, 2012 at 08:36 AM
John Doh, as a person in a same sex marriage I find it offensive that you are trying to use my marriage to garner up the politically correct vote on this issue, I or nor anyone else have brought up your marriage.
David Sanger January 11, 2012 at 08:36 AM
This is irrelevant. An application by AT&T must be treated EXACTLY the same as an application by Verizon or Metro PCS irrespective of any past merger activities or previous site licenses. US Code Title 47 5 III Part 1 §332 Mobile Services (c) (7) (B) The regulation of the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities by any State or local government or instrumentality thereof— (I) shall not unreasonably discriminate among providers of functionally equivalent services
David Sanger January 11, 2012 at 08:43 AM
"It's important to note that the predicted distances... are based on a very conservative, “worst case” scenario. In other words, Appendix B identifies the furthest distance from the antenna that presents even a remote realistic possibility of RF exposure that could exceed the FCC guidelines. The power levels are based on the approximate maximum number of channels that an operator is likely to operate at one site. It is further assumed that each channel operates with the maximum power permitted under the FCC’s rules and that all of these channels are “on” simultaneously, an unlikely scenario. This is a very conservative assumption. In reality, most sites operate at a fraction of the maximum permissible power and many sites use fewer than the maximum number of channels. Therefore, actual exposure levels would be expected to be well below the predicted values. Another mitigating factor could be the presence of intervening structures, such as walls, that will reduce RF exposure by variable amounts. For all these reasons, the values given in these tables and graphs are considered to be quite conservative and should over-predict actual exposure levels." http://wireless.fcc.gov/siting/FCC_LSGAC_RF_Guide.pdf
David Sanger January 11, 2012 at 08:58 AM
"the city bearing an unfair burden of permitting new AT&T sites in our community, which already has more cell sites per capita than surrounding cities, to make up for the fact that AT&T had sites here and gave them up." Not true. If 100 wireless operators applied to provide wireless service in Albany the City would have to treat them all fairly and could not exclude them. TITLE 47 > CHAPTER 5 > SUBCHAPTER II > Part II > § 253 REMOVAL OF BARRIERS TO ENTRY "(a) In general No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.
Montgomery Kosma January 11, 2012 at 09:12 AM
It is refreshing to hear so much sane and reasonable commentary, and a very pleasant surprise to have so many people in the community who seem well informed about the law and technology. I spent 10+ years in DC as an antitrust attorney, so while I can knock over the competition law strawmen with my eyes closed, it's great to see others doing the same with the telecom law and technology issues. The way our legal system works, there would be massive fortunes to be made by lawyers if there were anything plausible to the notion that the telcos' placement and operation of cell phone towers could lead to meaningful health risks. If the money-grubbing plaintiffs' bar can't drum up a case, that's strong evidence that there likely isn't one. As for 1035 San Pablo -- I live SUPER close to that area and would be THRILLED to have those antennae put in.

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