Essential Services

The news coverage of the weekend’s swarm of quakes in central New Zealand has included plenty of advice on disaster recovery kits and as ever, we’re now including information on cellphones and staying in touch.

Send TXT messages to keep the lines clear for emergency phone calls. Update your voicemail message or post on Facebook to tell everyone you’re OK – that way if you can get word out without tying up the phone lines.

Phone lines. It’s one of those phrases that rolls off the tongue but doesn’t really relate well with what we’re talking about. It’s a left-over from those years when the primary form of communication was a voice call from the phone attached to the wall.

Today of course we’re mobile. We rely on these phones to connect to the network so we can call for help, check on loved ones, update friends and family, talk to colleagues.

They’re an essential service. We simply couldn’t get by without them.

So why is it that mobile phone companies have such a hard time building the infrastructure we have all come to rely on?

Cellphones don’t work in isolation. If there’s no network coverage, there’s no connectivity. What provides network coverage? Cellphone towers, and (these days) fibre cable backhaul and of course electricity.

There is a lot of fear about cellsites. Radiation concerns, based largely on poor information about just what radiation is, seem to be the primary problem. Local residents oppose cellsites for health reasons, for property value reasons, all of which have been proven over and over to be unfounded, but still the opposition continues.

This puts local councils in a very difficult position. The evidence says there’s no problem – the rate payers say otherwise and any council which ignores its rate payers can end up looking for a new career.

So we have public consultation meetings that please no-one. There’s shouting, swearing, crying, threats, NIMBY anger and fear and no-one goes away happy.

We have prolonged and costly resource applications that demand the sites be put somewhere, anywhere else, and much mapping and planning to determine just where that could be.

If you want cellphone coverage, you have to have cellsites. There’s just no way round that – you can’t have one without the other. Councils need to do more to ensure cellsites are included in any new greenfields deployment. They need to do more to make sure the sites work for both telcos and residents.

And yes, once again, we’re calling on central government to make a change to its model as well. The Resource Management Act should include a set of national, standardised processes that guide local councils and developers whenever they build something new. That should come from central government and it would take the heat off councils and ensure we have coverage where people live and work.

The simplest and easiest thing to do is also the most effective. We should change the way roadside reserves are governed so councils can allow telcos to put the cellsites on council-managed property. That way the cost of building the network comes down, the council can manage the process more smoothly for all concerned and the site itself will be as far away from residents’ front doors as possible, while still providing coverage.

It’s events like these we’ve seen this past weekend that make us realise just how much we’ve come to rely on cellphones and the networks that support them. Let’s make sure these devices are there when we need them the most.

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