Will the FCC ever deal with bird-killing mobile phone towers?

July 9, 2009

Both conservationists and the wireless industry continue to press the Federal Communications Commission for some response to concerns that millions of migratory birds fatally collide with mobile phone towers every year. But there are no obvious signs that—despite a court order requiring agency action—the Commission has plans to do anything.

A small army of industry representatives just met with the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau on this issue. They urged the Commission to contract with an "impartial avian consultant" to "assess the state of the science surrounding avian mortality, as a first step toward filling the void of peer-reviewed data that exists in the Migratory Bird rulemaking proceeding." The meeting included reps from CTIA – The Wireless Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Association of Tower Erectors.

But conservationist groups call this a delaying tactic. "There is overwhelming peer-reviewed science to demonstrate the significance of tower-caused kills on bird populations," the American Bird Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and National Audubon Society say in their latest comments to the FCC.

Meaningful public involvement

As we have reported, after years of doing nothing, in February of last year the FCC was ordered by an appellate court to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and assemble guidelines to protect migrating birds that fly into wireless towers at night.

It’s unclear how many birds actually perish this way. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that as many as four or five million birds may die in this fashion, but recent research suggests that even if the actual number is smaller, the dilemma is real. In their filings, the conservationists put the Bay-breasted Warbler at 150,000 wireless tower fatalities a year, and the Blackpoll Warbler at 90,000. At least 60 species included on the FWS’s Birds of Conservation Concern list are killed by towers, they say.

The court told the FCC to determine "how it will provide notice of pending tower applications that will ensure meaningful public involvement in implementing NEPA procedures." New rules will require tower construction applicants to show that their proposed structures don’t hurt birds, or provide details of how they plan to protect them.

But not even the court order got the agency off its feet. Finally in April ABC et al submitted a Petition for Expedited Rulemaking to the FCC, asking the Commission to assess the impact of its current Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) standards on bird safety and finish a proceeding on how to address the problem.

There’s plenty of back and forth in this fight over which studies can be understood as credible or peer reviewed. But there have also been constructive suggestions. The CTIA group has asked the FCC to run a public notice on tower registration standards and to conduct an environmental assessment of the Gulf Coast Region, where significant bird tower death has been said to take place. And industry reps have offered an array of suggestions for authorizing new wireless towers and asking the public for feedback on their construction.

Meanwhile there’s a lot of research out there offered by conservancy groups about ways to minimize the harm cell phone towers do to migrating birds. These include reducing the tower height, relying less on guy wire construction, and using strobe rather than continuous lighting systems.

What there doesn’t seem to be is an FCC willing to deal with the issue. The item is not in circulation with the Commissioners at this time, and the agency has been "kicking [the problem] down the road," in the words of one Commissioner, since 2002. Seven years is a long time, even for the government.

This post has been written by Matthew Lasar on July 8, 2009 11:45 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.

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