Cell Station Permits Caught in Ministry Cross Fire

The master plan supposed to formalize the processes of planning and licensing cellular antennae is being delayed by Communications Ministry demands for more leeway, Haaretz had learned.

Three weeks ago, the ministerial committee on services and internal affairs met to confirm Master Plan 36, the national outline plan for communications installations, including those serving cellular networks.

Negotiations over the plan took five years, and the plan was only confirmed by the national planning and building council two months ago. At the end of the meeting, chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai decided to allow Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon to try and resolve disagreements with the Interior and Environmental Protection ministries over the plan.

The master plan spells out a clearly organized process for the construction of transmission installations. It limits the areas where these can be set up, and defines safety distances between antennae and their maximum height. The plan allows local authorities' involvement in the planning process, and also defines guidelines for the small wireless access boxes that have become an important part of cellular transmission but so far usually have not required a permit.

A Communications Ministry spokesperson told Haaretz yesterday that the plan in its current form will damage the contiguity and scope of cellular coverage and limit the ability to include new operators in the existing infrastructure. The ministry also said the plan makes it difficult to set up communications installations near roads, or to add new installations to existing ones and municipal infrastructure. Solving these disagreement would only delay the confirmation of the plan by a few more weeks, the ministry said.

Communications Ministry's Director General Eden Bar Tal went further in a letter two months ago to the national planning council, saying that the limitations imposed on building new antennae would result in exposing the public to more radiation. The Environmental Protection Ministry holds that more antennae mean each antenna would emit less radiation. Bar Tal also took issue with the plan banning antennae from picturesque areas like the Yarkon River, the highway leading to Jerusalem and the Pine Valley at the entrance to the capital.

The council rejected most of the Communications Ministry's demands. It refused to ease the guidelines for setting up transmission installations in open areas, and noted that one of the purposes of the entire plan is to encourage the establishment of smaller installations, to minimize damage to the landscape. It also refused to expand the territory of adjacent installations and demands to allow taller antennae and assist the addition of new operators on the existing network, again noting that technological advances now allow minimizing the size of installations needed to maintain the network. It also declined Communications Ministry demands to only allow municipal architects to propose alternative sites for antennae, saying that local building committees will have that privilege.

"It's outrageous that the government just puts to one side the council's recommendations, worked out after a long process of examining all aspects, and instead works to find a compromise between ministries based on economic and political considerations," said Iris Khan, a representative of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel on the national planning and building council. "Meanwhile, more and more antennae are set up with exemption from a construction permit and without all the necessary checks."

The cellular companies forum preferred not to comment on the debate surrounding the master plan, but the companies have been known recently to complain of difficulties in setting up transmission installations in a number of cities because of licensing constraints.