Mobile tower fight moves into political realm

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Mobile tower fight moves into political realm

Part Two: Why grass-roots activism is being listened to.

Members of mobile phone tower action group No Towers Near Schools have stepped into the political arena, working as field experts on regulatory committees and mapping community disputes with carriers across Australia.

Their appointments mark the next level in a grassroots campaign being waged by Australians concerned about the placement of mobile phone antennas.

A No Towers Near Schools spokesman told iTnews that several of the group's members have taken their place on high-profile committees since winning a compromise on a Telstra tower placement at Bardon, near Brisbane.

The group has a seat on the Communications Alliance's Mobile Phone Network Infrastructure Revision working committee, which is examining the industry code that governs tower placements.

It has also been invited by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) to participate in an electromagnetic radiation reference group.

"We're going to take up that offer as well," the spokesman said.

The placements are part of a wider campaign by a "core group" of residents that want reform of the industry code governing tower placements, and of Schedule 3 of the Telecommunications Act, which lists carrier powers for installing 'facilities' in Australia.

One member of the action group has also taken to plotting communities Australia-wide on a map whose battle against an antenna or tower project has gone public. She claims that about 100 had been mapped so far.

"These are just the communities that have managed to get into the newspaper," the spokesman said.

"So many communities out there have had a similar fight to what we have.

"When you try to make contact with communities with previous battles, they're all ropeable.

"You scratch the surface and they're still angry at the way they were treated by telecommunications companies."

The spokesman told iTnews that No Towers fielded a call from at least one new action group every fortnight seeking information on how to oppose the placement of a new structure.

"Because we've fought a battle people come to us [to ask] 'What do we need to do?'," the spokesman said.

Community involvement

No Towers Near Schools is symbolic of the influence and organised resurgence of residents action groups in Australia.

The group managed to defeat plans lodged by Telstra in 2009 to relocate an existing tower in the area to the roof of an apartment block about 200m from a school.

The group managed to get the carrier to split the planned single tower into three smaller sets of antennas that would be located on an existing Crown Castle-owned pole and two poles owned by utility Energex.

The revised plan required Telstra to redo community consultations for the project. The telco was "directly involved" the second time around, choosing not to let a consulting firm deal with residents.

"They did a much better job [than the first time]," the spokesman said.

"Usually everything is done by consultants [who] source the lease, do the community consultation and everything is done at arm's length [to the telco].

"Telstra were much more involved in the community consultation the second time around. They set up an information stall in the local hall on a couple of dates and set up a website specifically for this site."

No Towers' principal "beef" with the current system of community consultation is that it happens only after a telco has secured a lease for the site of its proposed tower or antenna.

"It's meaningless because if the community doesn't like the proposal [location] they've got buckleys [chance overturning it]," the spokesman said.

"The only reason we were successful... was because [Telstra] stuffed up with the lease."

No Towers raised a $20,000 legal fund to help members of the apartment block's body corporate dispute the way Telstra secured its lease.

The State's Commissioner for Body Corporate and Community Management granted an injunction preventing Telstra from building on top of the apartment block. Issues with the lease came out that eventually saw it voided.

But No Towers' success was the exception rather than the rule in disputes.

"Telcos rely on the fact that people are really busy," the spokesman said.

"People do their best to fight it but then give up. They come up against a brick wall, feel their hands are tied and give up."

No Tower' spokesman said the group had also faced its share of stigma for opposing a tower placement.

"You're immediately slated with the label of being a 'greenie'," the spokesman said.

"But I think what every community wants is a say in what's happening in their community.

"A cautionary approach should be taken in regards to community-sensitive sites."

Lingering uncertainty

Despite the group's success, distrust and concerns remain.

More than a year after Telstra revised its proposal, the placement of one of the three sets of antennas remains up in the air.

"We're starting to worry," the spokesman said. "Is this going to happen or are we going to have more nonsense on our hands?

"The longer it goes on, we get more worried that [the revised plan] is suddenly going to be off the table."

This is the second article in a multi-part iTnews' investigation of a resurgence in mobile phone antenna disputes. You can read the first part here. Stay tuned for more.

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