Across the country, cellular providers increasingly are improving their services by turning to school districts. And often cash-strapped districts are embracing the antennas or towers like money trees.

Cell phone providers have found that public schools often are easy, convenient locations to place their equipment, usually antennas mounted on existing structures, to improve mobile phone service.

The companies are willing to pay good money to school districts for the right to do so, and for the right price, many districts are quite willing to let them.

A few districts, including Arizona’s Tucson Unified and Paradise Valley districts, have multiple sites leased to several providers and are raking in around $75,000 to $80,000 a year. “Look around,” said Jim DiCello, assistant superintendent of the Paradise Valley School District. “They’re everywhere.”

The districts use the money generated to train teachers; improve or maintain athletic fields, parking lots, or lighting; and buy computers or other classroom equipment. In the case of Catalina Foothills Unified School District, north of Tucson, they’re putting $4,830 a year into the district’s gifts and donations fund and another $6,900 toward reducing the annual levy on taxpayers.

That district has rejected offers that would require providers to erect towers or poles. The only existing array is on a school building that could be attached in a manner aesthetically pleasing to area residents, business services director Lee Bergman said.

The Humboldt Unified School District in Prescott Valley, Ariz., currently earns $35,000 a year from four vendors using light poles around the Bradshaw Mountain High School football field. It’s considering making half the annual revenue available for school grants and putting the rest in a foundation, Superintendent Ron Maughan said.

“Most municipalities say they want us to use an existing location, that is more aesthetically pleasing, rather than construct a cell tower monopole,” said Jan Thomas, a spokeswoman for Qwest Communications in Denver. Qwest, which in June merged with U.S. West, has contracts with 18 school districts in Arizona.

Thomas said her company does not target schools but seeks ideal locations within coverage areas to provide the best service to the most customers—and schools, churches, and office buildings offer the needed height.

For the most part, the antennas and other devices don’t stand out. Often, they’re painted to blend in. “Even people at the games don’t notice them,” Maughan said. “They’re very unobtrusive.”

For schools, “in many cases it’s advantageous for them because they have limited budgets,” Thomas said.

Several providers holding contracts dating to the mid-1990s have 10 antennas operating at four Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) high schools and one elementary school. The oldest contracts bring in $750 a month, the newest $1,000 monthly. Additional contracts are under discussion.

“If you’re going to service the cellular business, we’re a natural because we’re spaced out so evenly,” said Lynn Webster, TUSD’s interim executive manager of fiscal and operational support.

TUSD divides the antenna revenue among the host school, the regional superintendent’s office, and a district-operated clothing bank for needy students.

The Prescott Unified School District earns $600 a month from Qwest for putting a device on one football light pole at Prescott High School.

“It’s treated in a positive fashion because of the shortage of funding that public schools tend to have in this state,” said Prescott Superintendent Roger Short.

Neighboring Chino Valley Unified School District has a five-year lease worth $9,600 a year. CLS, a company representing Sprint, will install a cellular tower with lights at the district’s high school tennis complex. The lease will pay for installation of other lights and for electricity costs.

No one has complained or questioned the project, Superintendent Ronald Minnich said.

In fact, such cellular antennas or towers have drawn few complaints, officials in a number of districts said. But at least a few districts have turned cellular companies down. One such district is Tucson’s Amphitheater Schools, which rejected an offer because of a former superintendent’s concerns about exposure to electromagnetic frequencies.

Others, such as Scottsdale Unified School District, have agreements but won’t renew them.<

In response to such concerns, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) maintains the levels of radiation emitted from the towers are safe.

“Historically, there have been questions raised about these towers, but research has lead us to believe that they are safe,” said CTIA spokesman Travis Larson. “Over 200 scientific studies have been done on this area, specifically of cell phones and cell towers, and the vast majority of those show there are no adverse health effects.”

Based on those studies, he said, the federal government has set safety standards and requirements for the industry.

“We obviously don’t want students climbing on these towers,” Larson said. “As long as standard safety precautions are taken—which are standard in the industry—then there is no safety hazard.”

In June, the United Kingdom’s National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) published a report on exposure of people to radio waves from mobile-phone base stations. NRPB conducted power-density measurements at 118 locations near mobile phone masts sited at schools, apartment buildings, and residential areas. The group reported that, in all cases, the total exposures of people to radiation were a small fraction of national and international guidelines.

“The radio waves produced by transmitters used for mobile phones are sufficiently weak that the guidelines can only be exceeded if a person is able to approach to within a few meters directly in front of the antennas,” NRPB says on the Mobile Phones and Human Health section of its web site.

Links:

Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association
http://www.wow-com.com/index.cfm

National Radiological Protection Board
http://www.nrpb.org.uk/index.html