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Gazette Opinion

Infrastructure for wireless communications has changed the Billings landscape in a matter of months. Tall metal towers pierce the city skyline, their warning lights flashing in all directions. No fewer than 10 cell towers have been approved since Jan. 1, bringing the number of cell towers in and around the city to more than 30.

Cell tower debates are being waged in communities around the country because of the rapid growth in cell phone demand. But as we grow more dependent on cell phones and abhor the forest of towers, we are running out of space.

33 towersThe federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 limits cities’ ability to regulate wireless communications. Complying with that law, Billings has an ordinance stating that towers must be at least a mile apart. With 33 cell towers already approved in and around the city, the spots where another tower can fit are few.

Fortunately, there are alternatives that will have less impact on the view and allow cellular services to expand their network capabilities. A package of proposed ordinances on cell towers was approved last week by the Yellowstone County Commission. The Billings City Council will vote on the same proposal on second reading on Aug. 13.

We call on the City Council to adopt the proposed cell tower ordinances as quickly as possible.

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The proposal encourages cell providers to share towers. Some cell towers already constructed in Billings have the capability of being used by six providers, but most are only used by one company, according to Candi Beaudry, a planner with the City-County Planning Office. The proposal also encourages use of existing structures, such as tall buildings, water towers or utility poles where antennas could be attached. So far, only Qwest has used existing structures, according to Beaudry, putting one antenna on a utility pole and another on a downtown bank.

Neighbors objectJust over a week ago, the City Council turned down a request for another cell tower on the West End. Sixteen neighbors spoke against the project. But few other tower proposals have been turned down. In one February meeting, the council approved three cell towers, each 180 feet tall.

Although neighbors turned out in force to express their opinions against the cell tower proposed for Country Manor Boulevard, the general public has been notably absent from public hearings on the new ordinances.

The proposed ordinances are a good effort to be fair to cell service providers, to take a practical look at available space and to encourage preservation of neighborhood landscapes. To anyone who doesn’t want a tower in the neighborhood, we say, find out about the alternatives and encourage your council members to support the new ordinances.

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