Aiming to balance the growing demand for cell phone coverage in the resort with siting and aesthetic concerns over the installation of cell towers, the resort municipality established an antenna system protocol Tuesday (Sept. 3) that will help guide telecommunications companies operating in Whistler.
An agreement was signed between the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) in February intended to find solutions to the challenge of building digital infrastructure across the country while still respecting communities’ concerns and land use preferences, which led the RMOW to begin assessing what options it had for guiding the future installation of cell phone towers in the resort. While the federal government will still have the final say over antenna system installations, Whistler’s municipal protocol should carry weight with wireless carriers, according to Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.
“It’s got moral suasion, and the FCM and (the CWTA) have agreed that if a municipality has that protocol in place, that new antenna sitings have to comply with that protocol, so it does have more teeth than not,” she said.
Under the joint agreement between the FCM and the wireless industry, telecommunications companies belonging to the CWTA agreed for the first time to notify participating municipalities of all antennas prior to their installation, and if necessary, to undergo public consultation regarding the location and design of a tower. The protocol is completely voluntary. Under current federal law, wireless carriers are mandated to consult with local government only if an antenna is erected at a height of more than 15 metres, which led to numerous towers around the country being constructed just under the miniumum height required for public engagement.
With Whistler’s new protocol in place, all future antenna system installations will require public consultation, said Wilhelm-Morden, regardless of a tower’s proposed height. Municipal staff has set out preferred locations for future antenna systems, which include existing buildings and infrastructure such as transmission towers, and unsurveyed Crown Land. Discouraged locations for tower erection include residential areas, schools, daycares, scenic vistas and ridgelines. Co-location at existing antenna sites is preferred over establishing new antenna sites as well, according to the municipal report.
“This is basically the Whsitler-specific guidelines that we like and the preferences that we have, so essentially (carriers should) respect our local sensitivities and preferences within the municipality,” said RMOW planning analyst Kevin Creery in a presentation to council. “We want to find out the short-term and long-term goals of the provider and get them to collaborate with other providers in town to co-locate to reduce the number of antennas within the municipality.”
Further objectives of the RMOW’s protocol are to support a full range of telecommunications options within the resort, while minimizing costs and community and environmental impacts resulting from antenna installations.
The issue surrounding the erection of cell phone towers in the resort first arose after a group of local residents expressed their concern to council in October over a proposed tower on provincial land located on Alpine Way. Their primary concern was with the potential negative health impacts caused by radiation levels of a new antenna system in the area, an issue that was not addressed in Tuesday’s report to council.
“First of all, we don’t have the jurisdiction (to assess potential health impacts),” said Wilhelm-Morden. “Between FCM and the CWTA, they considered the health issues and they had input from Health Canada in developing their protocol.”
Health experts are divided on the risks posed by regular exposure to cellphone towers, which emit radiofrequency electromagnetic fields that some believe are harmful. Health Canada has stated that the level of radiation emitted by antenna systems is minor if federal regulations are followed.
Wilhelm-Morden confirmed the application by Wind Mobile to erect the Alpine Way tower has since been withdrawn. An application to extend an existing tower on Lorimer Road is still in place, however.
The public will have the chance to view and provide input on the RMOW’s antenna system protocol until Oct. 15, after which a revised policy is expected for council consideration.