New Chilean Antenna Law Brings Macondo To The Southern Cone

Posted on Wednesday, June 13, 2012

For a long time, Chile has been the region’s most advanced telecommunications market

  • First with long distance competition
  • First with new mobile technologies — GSM, WCDMA, HSPA
  • First with new fixed technologies like MPLS

Those of us who work in countries thought to be “less well-organized” could only sigh in envy at the unspoken alliance between government, industry and society that propelled the Chile’s telecom environment towards so-called “First-World” status. But now “regression to the mean” is about to happen with the new antenna law.

Time after time scientific investigations have disproved that Electromagnetic Radiation from towers has any impact on human beings. Time after time panic by politicians and  uneducated voters has denied the validity of these studies.

Admittedly the evidence is less clear about heat and other emissions from the phones themselves but no one passes legislation banning phones, just banning or at least severely restricting towers. Everyone wants mobile phone service. It is an engine of progress as telecom ministers around the region like to say. No one wants the consequences of having mobile phone service like antennas.

Once again Chile moves to the vanguard but not in a good way: BNAmericas reports that Chile will be “among the five strictest member countries of the OECD” with respect to antenna placement. (Sorry, subscription required.)

Full Disclosure: This issue drives me crazy. It has since the time, as president of Comcel, I was dragged into the Bogota Planning Department Office and instructed that I had 18 months to migrate all towers in the city to a single shared structure modeled after the Berlin TV tower!

Towers have no friends. They block the skyline. They are often pug-ugly. They can have a depressing effect on property values in many cases. Like garbage dumps and social housing, no one wants them around however necessary they may be. NIMBY: Not in my back yard.

Given that there is much more evidence for the property value impact than the health effect, one suspects that health is the justification for an age-old economic impulse. The World Health Organization and those who wrap tin-foil around their heads to ward off the evil impacts of EMR are just the unwitting dupes of rich property owners who don’t want those “filthy things” in their neighborhood.These are no doubt the descendents of  aristocrats who didn’t want peasant markets around the walls of their castles. Thank heavens for Carrefour!

The problem is that while the inhabitants of Los Condes or Golf can dispatch garbage dumps to the countryside and social housing to the other side of the city, doing the same with towers has a direct impact on quality-of-service. No antenna. No service. Period. Laws of physics refuse to conform to national legislatures.

I’m not opposed at all to some of the consequences of laws like this one, especially in terms of motivating network sharing and encouraging the use of tower-disguising techniques. Personally, I am partial to the fake pine trees and fake palm tree variants.

I can accept that there were real costs born by neighbors for which operators are responsible but haven’t paid either in rent to the landlord of the tower site or in their ongoing operating costs.

The timing is even mildly fortuitous. If it had come earlier, there would have been few options, but now at least we have (or soon will have) small-cell architectures that can tuck the offending antennas out of site (or nearly so).

But it infuriates me that the same people blocking towers, demanding retroactively that they be torn down in some cases, will also be complaining to Subtel about quality of service. No where do I see that the law absolves operators of their service requirements even though they could be held up for years in environmental permitting for necessary expansion.

Bottom Line: Chile will now come late to the LTE party as operators find it difficult to impossible to put in new towers and in any event will be tied up with legal challenges over existing towers. (LTE is such a different radio technology from WCDMA and the available frequencies are so different that new towers are almost inevitable.) Chile will fall in the “league tables” for Network Readiness and other metrics of technological progress.

What a waste!

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