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D.C. Digital Tower Fracas Heads To Court

Washington-The newest structure on an antenna farm known as Broadcast Hill in the nation's capital is an unfinished digital television tower that looks as if its upper reaches have been lopped off. City officials halted work on the tower, and its fate now rests in the hands of a federal court.

The tower is a project of American Tower Corp., a Boston-based company that builds and maintains towers for the wireless, Internet and broadcast industries. The tower was meant to reach 750 feet and house more than a hundred antennae for digital television, radio broadcasting and cellular phone service, but it now stands at just 280 feet.

Shortly after construction began, citizens of Tenleytown, the neighborhood surrounding the tower site, began protesting the project, and on Oct. 5, the government of the District of Columbia revoked American Tower's building permit, halting work.

American Tower has since sued in U.S. District Court, seeking to have the building permit reinstated. If American Tower prevails, the suit could cost the district millions in compensatory damages.

"The tower is wholly inappropriately situated," says Tim Cooper, leader of the citizens group that was chiefly responsible for getting the city to step in. "Basically they put it right between two existing commercial buildings, inches away from a sidewalk. We're very concerned about, during winter months, ice falling from 750-feet up onto a pedestrian walkway."

Last fall, Cooper's group collected more than 1,000 signatures on its anti-tower petition in just three days. The uproar they generated seemed to persuade the district government to revoke the permit.

The court must decide if the government acted solely on the basis of community pressure in revoking the permit, and if that action was illegal.

Officials at the district's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which originally issued the permit, refused to comment on the case while it is being litigated, but they maintain in filings with the court that the permit was approved mistakenly due to errors made in the application and processing.

Various infrastructure-upgrade efforts have posed problems in the district. Last spring, the city put a temporary halt to most trench cuts by telecommunications firms because uncoordinated cuts were causing some streets to be repeatedly torn up. The city enacted new regulations (and required new fees) to coordinate work and pay for street repairs.

The district has filed a motion to dismiss the case, on which Judge Paul L. Friedman is expected to rule in January. Friedman's earlier comments, however, make the possibility of a dismissal seem unlikely. While he refused to allow American Tower to resume construction of the tower during the case, Friedman called the district's conduct into question when he made that ruling.

"I think that they played politics over technology for sure," said Robert J. Morgan, vice president and general manager of American Tower. "We started in March of 1999 to get the necessary permits in place. All of this was the result of community pressure."


Morgan said that American Tower has contracts with WDCA, the local UPN affiliate, and WHUT, a PBS affiliate run by Howard University, to site their digital antennae.

In addition to concerns over ice falling from the tower and aesthetic concerns relating to the tower being so close to the street, residents were worried about emissions of Radio Frequency Radiation being a danger to the health of nearby residents.

The tower "would substantially increase radiated activity in the area," Cooper said.

One way in which engineers attempt to assess the radiation of a broadcast tower is by computer simulation.

Lou Vitale, president and chief engineer of Vitatech Engineering, a company that measures emissions from broadcasting towers, said such a simulation would be difficult in the case of a tower as big as the one American Tower proposed to build.

"It is a massive tower, with hundreds of antennae on it," said Vitale. "When you have an antenna this complex, it is impossible to accurately simulate it. We never know until it's fired up, and then of course it's too late."

Vitale added, however, that the perceived threat is often greater than the actual threat.

"These towers generally do not pose a health hazard," he said.

Both Vitale and Cooper suggested that American Tower could have avoided problems if they had come to the community earlier in the process, before construction began.

American Tower's Morgan disputed that assertion.

"We're property owners in the District of Columbia," Morgan said. "The property is permitted for this type of construction. We felt we were entitled. We were never instructed to go to the community by the district."

The fight over the tower got even uglier recently when American Tower's Washington public relations firm contracted with William Reed, the leader of a local black professional group known as the Business Exchange Network, to author ads in local newspapers criticizing the government's tower stance.

The ads accused Mayor Anthony A. Williams of pandering to the affluent voters of Tenleytown's Ward 3 by putting a stop to the tower.

The ads were a veiled attempt to create uproar in the city's black community over the tower issue. Williams, who is black, has sometimes been accused of neglecting the city's black residents.

Morgan admitted that American Tower has had a business relationship with Reed's Business Exchange Network, but attempted to distance the company from the ads. He said American Tower "didn't directly pay" for them.

"We feel that they've sunk to a low level of activism," Cooper said. "We simply have not participated in that conversation."

Broadcasting interests have worried about how communities would react to new television towers ever since the Federal Communications Commission first issued new rules mandating conversion to digital television broadcasting.

In 1997, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum

Service Television jointly filed a petition with the FCC requesting that the commission consider rules for preempting local zoning laws during DTV rollout.

The FCC never implemented such a rule, but they have developed a "strike force" of engineers to work with communities on radio frequency radiation and other safety concerns.

David Fiske, deputy director of the FCC's office of media relations, said the strike force had been effective in dealing with problems in those communities in which tower controversies have erupted. Fiske stressed that tower problems are not widespread, but exist in "isolated markets."

Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the NAB, agrees with Fiske's estimation of the problem's magnitude.


"It's market specific, it's not one-size fits all," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the NAB. "We seem to be resolving most of the problems. It's just one of many problems that we think are affecting implementation."

Wharton added, though, he expected zoning problems to increase as the rollout moves into smaller markets.

As of Dec. 20, 35 of the 40 ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC stations in the top 10 markets were digitally broadcasting.

Rollout problems have been slightly greater in markets 11 through 30, whose four largest affiliates were supposed to be on the air by November of 1999. As of November of 2000, 60 of those 80 stations were on the air.

Many of the problems in these markets-places like Denver, Hartford and Orlando-have had to do with difficulty in building the broadcast towers.

The FCC has required that all commercial stations begin digital broadcasting by May 1, 2002.

Whether or not the tower along Wisconsin Avenue in Washington will ever reach its full 750 feet and begin broadcasting digital signals is now in the hands of a federal court.

For his part, Morgan said he was "absolutely" confident that the Tower would be completed.

Cooper, predictably, has a different view. He says the community will not allow the tower to be completed. "They should have come to the community first," he said. "It would have saved them the financial nightmare."

States News Service