The yellow marker shows the proposed location of the Cell Tower. The photo also shows the close proximity to surrounding homes.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Did you know that T-Mobile does not have to erect a 12-story-high cell tower on the Whitman school grounds in order to improve coverage in the area?  In fact, there are alternate locations at which T-Mobile can set up its antennas.  Also, an alternate technology exists that is visually much less intrusive and involves antennas operating at much lower power levels. It is called a Distributed Antenna System ("DAS").

The industry defines a DAS as "a network of spatially separated antenna nodes connected to a common source via a transport medium that provides wireless service within a geographic area or structure."  (  What this means is that instead of having central, high-powered antennas emit from a single, tall cell tower (as in Diagram (a) to the right), a group of small, lower-powered antennas are mounted atop existing utility poles throughout the coverage area (as in Diagram (b)).

The photograph to the left shows such an antenna mounted on top of a standard utility pole.  You may view a larger copy of this photograph by clicking this link.

Using a DAS would have the following advantages over the proposed cell tower:

1. The antennas would be located away from the school grounds.  This would ameliorate the concerns that have been raised in the community related to a potential health risk for school-aged children.

2. This would avoid using school grounds for non-educational, commercial purposes.

3. It would avoid the industrial appearance of a tall tower, that would severely interfere with the character of the surrounding residential neighborhood.

4. The antennas would blend in with the existing utility poles and barely be noticeable.

5. Each antenna's power output would be lower.

In fact, T-Mobile and the wireless industry as a whole have in various ways endorsed and advocated using DAS:

  • T-Mobile is a founding member of The DAS Forum, which describes itself as "the only national network of leaders focused exclusively on shaping the future of DAS as a viable complement to traditional macro cell sites and a solution to the deployment of wireless services in challenging environments."  (
  • In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the cell phone industry association CTIA recently emphasized that "placing wireless communications equipment on existing electric utility distribution poles is ... important in residential neighborhoods and areas where consumers expect wireless coverage but oppose the aesthetic impact of larger wireless towers."  (In the Matter of A National Broadband Plan for Our Future, FCC GN Docket No. 09-51, Reply Comments of CTIA-The Wireless Association at 14 (July 21, 2009); click this link to access this document.)
Using a DAS has already been considered in Montgomery County as an alternative to a T-Mobile cell tower on public school grounds.  In 2006, when T-Mobile applied to install a cell tower on the grounds of Julius West Middle School in Rockville, T-Mobile was asked to comment on the use of a DAS as an alternative, in order to minimize the visual impact on the neighborhood.  In that particular case, a DAS turned out not to be a viable option because all utilities in the area were underground and no utility poles existed to which a DAS could be attached.  (City of Rockville Planning Commission Staff Report re: Special Exception Application SPX2005-00364 (Nov. 9, 2006); click this link to access the Report.)  Faced with intense community opposition, Montgomery County Public Schools ultimately decided not to proceed with this cell tower application.

Moreover, when T-Mobile first proposed to erect a cell tower on the Whitman school grounds, it was already fully aware that this proposal would generate intense opposition in the community.  First, the Whitman community is notorious for such opposition ever since it defeated a cell tower proposal at Pyle Middle School in 2005.  Second, the neighboring communities of Wootton and Walter Johnson High Schools also successfully warded off cell tower proposals in 2005.  Third, T-Mobile itself has testified about its experience with "thousands of school boards about locating [cell towers] on their properties, and that where there is opposition in the community to the construction of a [cell tower], such opposition is likely to be intensified if the proposed location of the [cell tower] is on school property."  (T-Mobile v. City of Anacortes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 08-35493 slip op. at n. 12 (July 20, 2009);  click this link to access the Court's Opinion.)

Against this background, one may wonder why T-Mobile has not proposed using DAS technology instead of a cell tower on the Whitman school grounds.  T-Mobile's reasons may include the following:
  1. Installing a DAS would require T-Mobile to lease space from Pepco at the top of the utility poles on which T-Mobile would mount the antennas;
  2. T-Mobile generates profits from leasing space on its cell towers to other cell phone companies, which it could not generate from a DAS.  In fact, under the standard lease form used by MCPS for cell towers, T-Mobile would recoup a significant portion of its costs in constructing the cell tower, as well as collect monthly rental payments, from colocating cell phone carriers.
  3. The Whitman school grounds include a relatively large area that could accommodate several additional cell towers while satisfying the set-back requirements under the Zoning Ordinance.  (Click this link to access our separate post containing a map of that area.)  As T-Mobile explained in a recent filing with the FCC, it holds licenses only in the upper frequency bands of the wireless spectrum, which require more antennas than lower frequencies.  For this reason, and in order to accommodate rapidly increasing wireless traffic and new types of applications (streaming video, data transmissions, etc.), T-Mobile may soon require additional antennas within the Whitman area. To that end, T-Mobile may be planning to erect additional cell towers on the Whitman school grounds once the first cell tower is in place.  At that point, it would be very difficult to convince the zoning authorities that adding a second cell tower next to an existing one would interfere with the character of the neighborhood.  Indeed, many examples of such "twin towers" already exist in our area.
We note, however, that T-Mobile's relative profits are not elements to be considered by the County authorities in the zoning process.  Maximizing the industry's profits also is not what Congress had in mind when it intended to encourage the deployment of wireless broadband service to all of America by passing such federal legislation as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Indeed, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 expressly preserved local zoning authority over "placement, construction, and modification" of cell towers.  We have a right to use the zoning laws to protect our neighborhood.


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