July 31. 2013 8:33PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Manchester takes on goliath over cell tower

New Hampshire Union Leader

AT&T has a problem with south Manchester.

One problem is technical: Its signal strength sucks. So as the wireless carrier tries to promote its whiz-bang 4G-LTE network in Manchester, it has an embarrassing soft spot in one of the city's most heavily traveled and populated areas.

Its other problem is with south Manchester residents, specifically a couple dozen who live along South Mammoth Road near Green Acres School. For 2½ years, AT&T has tried to build a 100-foot cellphone tower on a residential lot off South Mammoth Road, a tower the company says is needed to beef up that weak south Manchester signal.

City regulators have rejected the tower, siding with a roomful of angry citizens who don't think a cell tower fits in their neighborhood. Elsewhere, aldermen have said no to building it on Water Works land just up Mammoth Road. And the nearby Assumption Greek church and the Sisters of Holy Cross convent have also said no to a modern-day Tower of Babel on their properties.

And so what does a huge telecom company do when City Hall and neighborhoods stand in its way? It brings in the lawyers.

This week, a trial was supposed to start in U.S. District Court pitting AT&T against the city over the tower.

But in a last-minute agreement, lawyers for the city and AT&T opted to bring the tower before the Zoning Board of Adjustment again, sometime before Oct. 31. If the board rejects the tower, AT&T will be able to quickly revive its lawsuit.

The Zoning Board can expect to hear from residents on South Mammoth Road, such as Sean Hines. He lives on Pratt Court and would see the tower every morning from his front door, peeking over the 80-foot pine trees that surround his house.

"They say there's not that much radiation, but I'm going to be pelted with it," he said. He has two small children who will be growing up within about 300 feet of the tower.

The tower would be visible from Alex Saidel's daughter's bedroom. Like Hines, he worries about radiation, as well as the effect the tower will have on his property values.

"How many people want to live near high-tension wires?" he asked.

AT&T has lots of reasons for the tower.

Weak signal strength encompasses the Mall of New Hampshire, the Manchester airport, neighborhoods along South Mammoth, Island Pond and Bodwell roads. Ditto for about a mile of highway each way from the T-shaped junction of interstates 293 and 93.

Mobility isn't the company's only concern. AT&T needs more capacity to promote in-building coverage, meaning it wants to provide homeowners with the ability to give up their land lines and go totally wireless.

AT&T spokesman William Keyser said it's not uncommon to have neighbors complain about tower sites.

"We work very hard in every community we go into," Keyser said. Fifteen alternative sites have been considered, according to information he provided. Owners either refused or the site couldn't provide enough signal strength.

As for fears about electromagnetic radiation, he said AT&T follows federal guidelines. "They're the experts, we defer to them," he said.

Keyser said the tower is needed because as more people use mobile devices that demand faster speeds, more antennas and towers are needed.

But where does it end? In early 2011 when AT&T first brought its request to the zoning board, it promoted 3G coverage. Since then, it's gone through 4G and now promotes WiFi-like 4G-LTE in Manchester.

Wireless companies have become like tobacco companies. They run campaigns to encourage us to not text and drive, while boosting signal strength and promoting ubiquitous connectivity.

"Do we really need to have 3G, 4G on a highway?" Saidel asks.

Kathy Sullivan, another South Mammoth Road resident (and fellow Union Leader columnist) said AT&T and other wireless companies have built their Manchester network piecemeal. They need to develop a comprehensive plan for coverage with Manchester's zoning restrictions in mind.

It may mean relocating some of its current towers and antennas, Sullivan said. After all that, if some areas still lack coverage, then the company can look to neighborhoods.

"I would really like to see Manchester fight for the integrity of its zoning ordinance," Sullivan said.

But in this fight, Manchester is a pipsqueak. The city has assigned one lawyer to the case, but no money to hire experts.

On its side, AT&T has three lawyers and loads of consultants who put numbers to coverage gaps, signal strength and network demands. And it has the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a federal law that allows companies to override local zoning ordinances if it can prove significant gaps exist and no alternative site is available.

This is a new century of communication. The old-fashioned telephone poles and wires were democratic — sure they were ugly, and who knows if they leak small amounts of radiation. But everyone had to deal with them.

Towers inflict their unsightliness and health worries on a select few. But do they?

As we demand faster speeds so we can connect anytime, anywhere — whether to play Words with Friends or sext ourselves into news feeds — the demand for wireless will continue to grow. As will the number of towers.

Keyser said AT&T has spent nearly $75 million on its New Hampshire network so far and plans to increase service in every jurisdiction across the country. Where will those towers be?

That information, he said, is highly confidential because of the competitive nature of the business.

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. You can reach him at mhayward@unionleader.com, which he can access on his AT&T networked iPhone 4, but not on weekends, holidays or days off.