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A reality check on Jobs' 3G network complaint

The Apple CEO said it can take years to add new cell sites in cities like San Francisco. We set out to discover if that's true.

Customers who wanted the iPhone 4 line up in San Francisco the day the phone hit stores in June. The phone's popularity here has caused a strain on local 3G networks.
Customers who wanted the iPhone 4 line up in San Francisco the day the phone hit stores in June. The phone's popularity here has caused a strain on local 3G networks. James Martin/CNET

It turns out Steve Jobs wasn't exaggerating all that much when he said it can take three years to get a cell tower approved in San Francisco.

Since the day Apple sold its first iPhone, AT&T, the exclusive American iPhone carrier, has been under fire for its spotty network coverage, particularly in San Francisco (but New Yorkers are also prone to iPhone reception beefing). The complaints got louder with the 3G phone and hardly abated with the release of iPhone 4.

A seemingly exasperated Jobs addressed the problem in a July 16 press conference. "When AT&T wants to add a cell tower in, oh, Texas or somewhere, it takes three weeks to get approval in a typical community. To get a cell phone tower in San Francisco, it takes something like three years," he said at the press event to discuss the iPhone 4's antenna issues two weeks ago.

AT&T has acknowledged shortcomings but only to say that it's spending a lot of money to increase its 3G coverage. The company said at the end of last year that it had spent $65 million from 2008 through the third quarter of 2009 on upgrading its 3G network in the San Francisco Bay Area. What AT&T hasn't said is why it's taken so long for iPhone users to see a noticeable change in their coverage quality.

So we decided to find out what the holdup is in CNET's hometown of San Francisco and why exactly some of our editors can't get reliable AT&T service in their living rooms. Other cities can be tricky, but ours can be uniquely difficult. Government red tape, tricky terrain, a heavy concentration of smartphone users, and yes, those NIMBY (not in my backyard) types all conspire to make the City by the Bay one tough place to improve cellular service.

City records for the past few years show that applications to build new wireless telecommunication stations (the city's term for cell sites) can take a few months or up to two years or longer before a final action, such as approval to build a new panel antenna is handed down by city officials.

And this drawn-out process is well-known in the industry. "San Francisco has one of the most complicated, burdensome, arcane processes in the country, without question," said Patrick Ryan, adjunct professor of telecommunications policy at University of Colorado, Boulder.

Ryan has worked with cities of all sizes on upgrading and building wireless networks, and he says San Francisco stands out because of the many hoops that carriers have to jump through to get even small panel antennas installed, much less giant cell towers.

Panel antennas--which measure about one foot by four feet and about 8 or 9 inches thick--are the only practical option wireless carriers have to bulk up their coverage in the city and county of San Francisco. The city does not allow cell towers to be built because the local government considers them an eyesore. So the best option for AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and others is to build panel antennas onto existing structures--the penthouse of a tall building, the steeple of a church, a utility pole--typically in clumps of three to 12.

The neverending upgrade
Carriers have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of data flowing over their cellular networks in the past few years. That's mostly thanks to consumers' eager embrace of smartphones. More than 54 million smartphones were soldin the first three months of 2010 alone, according to research firm Gartner, accounting for an almost 50 percent jump from the same time period a year earlier.

Steve Jobs told reporters at a press event that it takes "three years" to get a new cell tower installed in San Francisco. He wasn't far off.
Steve Jobs told reporters at a press event that it takes "three years" to get a new cell tower installed in San Francisco. He wasn't far off. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

And while people are doing more mobile e-mail checking and app downloading, they're also cutting the cord on landline phones. Landline usage has dropped 19 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to data compiled by the FCC. If people are not talking on landlines, then they are switching to VoIP or cell service.

All of that adds up to be a constant strain on 3G networks. So even though the city of San Francisco already has 709 cell sites, carriers have to continuously add more antennas to deal with the load.

The network is "never done," said James Peterson, deputy vice president of public affairs for AT&T in California. "We're continuously growing, adding, enhancing. That has to do with customers' usage--traffic on our data network has increased by a factor of five."

"In the Bay Area we have a heavy concentration of smartphone users, which is terrific," he said. "But that's not without its challenges. People used to talk on their phone and maybe check a stock or sports score. Now they're streaming video, full-length feature films."

The process
The checklist just to have a complete application to build a cell antenna in a residential or non-industrial area and file it with the city's planning commission is fairly complicated. The fire department, public health department, building inspection, and in some cases, the city's Historic Commission, have to sign off.

And if the proposed group of antennas is in residential or non-industrial areas, the city's planning commission has "discretion," which means it gets to weigh a couple of factors before voting on whether it can be installed. The city's main concern about antennas? Aesthetics.

"We ask (carriers) to facade-mount them so they blend into the existing environment, on a building, on its parapet," said Jonas Ionin, a senior planner for the city of San Francisco.

The city wants antennas to be "not visible to the naked eye," he said. If city planners spot a potential problem with the proposed placement of an antenna, they will ask the carrier to make specific changes before they can proceed.

"And then the application sits until they have satisfied that," Ionin said. "If we have concerns with height of an antenna or location of proposed placement, we'll write a letter or call."

The process can drag out for a months or years, though the city says its goal is to move applications for antennas or any new wireless telecommunications facility fairly quickly. Looking at applications for conditional use permits to build panel antennas in San Francisco over the past three years shows some applications granted and processed in as little as five months--for example, NSA Wireless applied to add new antennas to a site in September of 2009 and was approved by February 2010.

But others have taken more than two years. An application was filed to install new antennas for Metro PCS's network on top of a Best Western hotel in the Japantown neighborhood in January 2008. The city didn't grant the conditional use permit until February 2010, San Francisco city records show.

Verizon applied in November 2006 to get three panel antennas installed on a mixed-use building in the West Portal neighborhood by disguising one as a faux vent and another on a chimney, along with a cabinet with cellular radio equipment behind the building. The application wasn't approved until May 2009.

Two and half years is not the norm, but it's also not that unusual, according to AT&T and others familiar with building networks in San Francisco. The city itself says it wants to move applications much quicker that that. "We strive for 90 days," Ionin of the planning department said.

Cities like San Francisco do have some motivation to move application for new cell sites quickly. The FCC decided late last year that for a new antenna to be installed on an existing structure, a "reasonable" time frame for a municipality to process and approve or deny a carrier's request is three months.

But because often carriers' applications are not complete--there are many documents, plans, and photos required--the reality, especially in San Francisco, is much longer than that.

San Francisco stands out in that regard compared with cities of similar size and smartphone adoption. In the city of New York, there are various agencies that require approval, like San Francisco, said Ryan of CU Boulder.

"Yet most (cell antenna) attachments to buildings don't require anywhere near the level of discretion and scrutiny required in San Francisco," he said. "Even in California, a very complex permit (granting) environment, most other larger cities don't have processes that are nearly as arcane or complicated as San Francisco."

It's 'not magic'
And it's not just that the city is overly thorough or picky about blocking sight lines. Sometimes it's the residents--the very people who are ostensibly using cellular networks.

Sometimes carriers will remove their application on their own when they run into too much community opposition, or when the process drags on and drags up the cost, planner Ionin said.

A recent example is T-Mobile's attempt to put a new antenna on the steeple of a church in the Mission District to fix what the carrier termed "an identifiable gap in coverage." But after just a few months of applying for the city permit, T-Mobile yanked its application in June because of fierce opposition from the church's neighbors. According to a letter from the carrier to the planning commission, T-Mobile did so in order "to promote harmonious relations and engender community goodwill."

Peterson of AT&T has seen similar uproar over some proposed cell antenna installations and meets with community members when they voice concerns over a new antenna site.

"What's the irony, I suppose, is that if you ask people in a room to raise their hand if they have a cell phone, really almost everyone including the people that are opposing it have one," Peterson said.

He says educating people is AT&T's goal so people know why new antennas need to be installed. A cell phone network is "not magic," he said. "It requires infrastructure, just like traffic signals require infrastructure."

Ryan believes San Francisco officials aren't being difficult on purpose but are trying to respond to its constituents' wishes. "I don't think there's anything nefarious about anything," he said. "The city has difficult policy choices to make. They want to keep it a beautiful place, but there's a tension between wanting to improve coverage, and doing it in a way that makes sense."