CellularOne is going into the landscaping business. It intends to plant a 100-foot plastic tree on the 322-year-old Mount Vernon estate once owned by President George Washington.
The artificial tree is one of CellularOne's answers to an expensive problem plaguing the fast-growing mobile phone industry - widespread public opposition to obtrusive antenna towers.
By hiding its Mount Vernon antenna tower inside a plastic pine tree, CellularOne executives hope their construction plans will be approved by local residents, zoning officials in Virginia's Fairfax County and officials at the National Historical Register, which is responsible for protecting the nation's historical heritage.
"Every place you [try to install an antenna], you have to do a lot of community work," said Michael Maus, director of real estate for CellularOne's Washington subsidiary, owned by Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems, based in Dallas.
CellularOne has already spent two years seeking approval for the Mount Vernon antenna and offered to install the plastic tree - which cost more than $100,000, or three times as much as a metal tower - to win approval from local citizens and officials, he said.
But the Mount Vernon antenna is only one of the roughly 100,000 antennas that the mobile phone and paging industries want to build across the nation by 2005.
And delays caused by local zoning boards are costing the industry billions of dollars in lost revenues, said Sheldon Moss, a lobbyist for the Washington-based Personal Communications Industry Association.
The association represents roughly 500 companies offering mobile phone, data and paging services.
Companies offering digital communications services, such as Sprint's Spectrum phone service, are especially eager to erect the antennas, partly because many of the companies are already paying for mobile phone licenses bought from the Federal Communications Commission, said Moss. Payments for these licenses are expected to generate billions of dollars in future revenue for the government.
To help win local acceptance at the nation's 30,000 zoning boards for their planned antennas, industry officials have lobbied Congress, the White House and federal agencies in pursuit of favorable zoning laws.
For example, Section 704 of the 1996 telecommunications reform law bars zoning boards from rejecting all antenna construction requests.
However, "the industry did not get nearly as much as it was hoping to get" from the legislation, said Moss.
By vigorously lobbying, local officials kept control of the zoning process, said Kevin McCarty, a lobbyist for the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors. Under Section 704 rules, zoning boards "can't ban the [antennas] ... can't discriminate among providers ... and the [approval] process can't be strung out," but they do get to approve or reject each construction request, said McCarty.
And contrary to industry's hope, these rules have prompted numerous localities to act very cautiously when considering companies' antenna construction requests, said McCarty.
A company may sue a zoning board if it thinks its rivals are getting better antenna sites, McCarty said.
Although industry officials "never really made an effort" to discuss the impact of their antenna-building program with local officials, the companies are getting a fair hearing from zoning boards, said McCarty.
However, industry officials will take localities to courts when their construction requests are unfairly rejected, said Moss. "We will see increasing cases when the courts impose limits on localities,"