The iPhone’s NIMBY Problem Underscored

The tech industry has pretty much determined that mobile is the future of the Internet. Maybe not always on your cell phone, but the ability to get online wherever you are with a device. This changes our relationships with connectivity by enabling us to combine our virtual lives with our offline personas. For many of us this is cool, and a wee bit scary, but I’m hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe that this is the next big thing.

There’s still a huge reluctance on the part of many communities to allow some of the infrastructure to helps deliver the mobile web: the towers. It can take years to approve new towers, or even add more equipment to existing towers. In November, the FCC passed rules (PDF) that require towns to make decisions within 90 days for adding equipment to existing towers, and 150 days to decide whether to allow new ones. This helps, but it’s still hard to manage multiple municipalities and zoning regulations.

In most cases, the delays are a combination of irritated city officials and reluctant neighbors who don’t want to deal with perceived health issues or unsightly towers.  Just this weekend, I found a local example that had me almost pitying AT&T (s T). The network, which already has pretty poor service in the hilly West Lake area of Austin, Tex., may not have the opportunity to improve its service, thanks to local opposition to a tower. From the Lake Travis-West Lake Hills Edition of Austin’s Community Impact Newsletter:

AT&T Wireless applied for a special-use permit and height variance at the July 11 meeting Board of Adjustments meeting. AT&T desired to replace the 80-foot tower located behind City Hall with a tower standing 120 feet. Several residents opposed the new tower, citing a possible risk to their health, as well as their safety were the tower to fall; two former council members spoke in favor of the taller tower. The seated board members agreed that the expected improvement in reception was not enough to approve the application.

Poor AT&T. West Lake Hills wants the company to put the tower on a nearby City of Austin water treatment plant, but AT&T apparently has been told it can’t because of homeland security reasons. My cell phone provider is Verizon (s vz), and even it can’t keep a reliable signal when I’m traveling through West Lake — which in addition to neighbors concerned about their health and the dangers of a falling cell phone tower (!) also is full of hills and near water — two enemies for wireless reception.

As the carriers race to expand 4G networks, cell towers are as much of piece of the mobile broadband equation as backhaul and spectrum, and one  that ordinary citizens actually have some influence over. If you’re upset your iPhone doesn’t work in your neighborhood, perhaps a trip to city hall might help.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d): How AT&T Will Deal with iPad Traffic