Cell phone towers seen as revenue source
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Eloise Aguiar
Cell phone antennas were once the eyesore that nobody wanted.
But they're looking good today to condo associations, some private property owners and even the city and county of Honolulu, all of which have found that hosting them can be worth money.
Four or five cell phone towers sit on the roof at the Pat's at Punalu'u condominiums in Windward O'ahu, and each brings in $800 to $1,000 a month in rent, said property manager Tom Heiden.
"It's very lucrative," Heiden said, adding that the towers have been there since cell phones became popular. "It's a source of revenue for the association."
The city has 103 antennas of varying applications — not just cell phones — on its property and reaps an average of about $1,200 a month for each, said Gordon Bruce, director of the city Department of Information Technology. That amounts to nearly $1.5 million a year.
And there are hundreds more towers out there with thousands of antennas.
NEED IS GREAT
As the use of cell phones has proliferated, the need for more transmission towers has, too.
In Hawai'i, the number of cell phone subscribers more than doubled from 2000 to 2006, or from 454,000 users to more than 1 million.
Because the phones operate via radio waves, antennas are needed to relay signals from one phone to another. Today, there are at least 3,200 of these antennas on O'ahu alone on everything from private property to state- and city-owned land, according to the city Department of Planning and Permitting. Not all of them are on individual towers; co-locating is encouraged to reduce the visual blight.
And while most people see the value of the cell phone for emergencies, staying in touch with children and simple convenience, some still see the antennas as an eyesore to be denied.
"It's a perfect not-in-my-back-yard issue," Bruce said. "Traditionally, the neighborhood boards don't want them in their back yard. They want the capability of good mobile phone service, but they don't want the antenna."
Some cell phone providers have worked to disguise their equipment. Some "stealth towers" are painted to match their surroundings, and still others are made to look like palm trees or pine trees.
In 2002, Kalihi Elementary School became home to the first "stealth pine-tree tower" in the Islands and at that time was receiving $1,200 a month as a result.
Several years ago, a cell phone company wanted to hide an antenna in a rock and place it at Lanikai Park, said Andrea Jepson, a Lanikai resident. The company was willing to pay a monthly fee and the Lanikai Association board liked the idea, but the community balked and eventually killed the project, Jepson said.
Not long afterward, a Lanikai resident allowed two cell phone companies to place towers on his Ko'oho'o Place property, to the dismay of neighbors, she said.
Now, a new company wants to co-locate another antenna at the site, which is on conservation land, and the community has mobilized against it, Jepson said.
Any antenna that goes up must get a city building permit and if it is slated for conservation land, a conservation district use permit is required, said Sam Lemmo, with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Lemmo, who handles the permits and heads the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said he couldn't say how many antennas are on state land but it is a lot, and the state is getting a fee for the use of the land.
Telecommunication sites are located throughout the island on conservation land and typically have more than one antenna located there, he said.
When cell phone usage took off, the state tried to create a plan for tower locations but soon realized it couldn't dictate to private industry where to place its equipment, Lemmo said.
But with a mandate to protect scenic resources, the DLNR has set up guidelines and a permitting process, he said.
"We were very concerned about the proliferation of telecommunication sites, especially with the explosion of cell phone use," Lemmo said. "So we adopted a policy where we would promote co-habitation."
Even when a service provider receives a permit for a new tower, it will most likely be in an area where a tower already exists and must be strong enough for other companies to attach to it, he said.
Lemmo said he's seen fewer applications lately, but a new study expected next month could result in an expanded coverage area for the state's enhanced 911 system and that may mean more antenna towers.
The Wireless e911 Board has initiated a study to locate areas that lack wireless phone coverage in the state, said Philip Kahue, executive director of the board. A report by Intrado Inc. is expected in August and should include a list that prioritizes the areas, Kahue wrote in an e-mail.
"The board will take Intrado's recommendations into consideration to decide whether or not to implement a plan to expand coverage for both geographically remote and in-building areas," he said. In-building areas are locations in a building where cell phones don't work, such as in a parking garage, Kahue explained.
A monthly cell phone fee collected by the state would pay for the upgrades.
Reach Eloise Aguiar at email@example.com.