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Fatal bandwidth: 6 cell tower deaths in 5 weeks

May 28, 2008: 9:00 AM ET

There's a price to pay for the wireless networks we take for granted.

On May 16, Jonathan Guilford, 25, of Fort Payne, Alabama, was working on an AT&T UMTS (3G) project in Haubstadt, Ind., when he fell to his death from a 200-foot tower, according to a report in Wireless Estimator, an online newsletter that covers the communications construction industry.

Falls from high towers are not unheard of in this business. But for more than four months -- between Dec. 5 and April 11 -- the industry was fatality free.

Then in April, as Wireless Estimator president Craig Lekutis notes with alarm, five workers fell to their death from mobile phone towers in the space of 12 days. Guilford's death in May was the sixth this year.

Accidents like this often come in spurts, says Lekutis, an industry veteran with 27 years experience. There were 10 fatal falls from elevated structures of all kinds (including TV, electrical and water towers) in 2007, and a record 18 in 2006. But this year's concentrated run of cell tower accidents, he says, was extraordinary.

The toll, as recorded by Wireless Estimator:

  • April 12: A 34-year-old cell tower technician from Oklahoma man died after falling 150 feet from monopole antenna in Wake Forest, NC. It was the nation's first death in 2008 of a communications worker falling from an elevated structure.
  • April 14: A tower worker employed by Cornerstone Tower of Grand Island, Neb., fell to his death in Moorcroft, WY.
  • April 15: A 38-year-old technician finished tightening the bolts on a guyed wireless tower in San Antonio, TX, "sort of lean[ed] back a little," according to witnesses, and fell 225 feet to his death.
  • April 17: North Carolina suffered its second cell tower fatality in a week when a 46-year-old Chesapeake, VA, man fell from a communications antenna in Frisco, NC.
  • April 23: A Griffin, GA, man died from extensive head and chest injuries after falling 100 feet from a communications tower near Natchez, MS. He was reportedly hanging boom gates to a Cell South antenna when he fell.
  • May 16: Guilford was rappelling down a load line attached to a 200 foot monopole when he stopped abruptly 140 feet up and bounced as if on a bungee cord, disengaging the carabiner that was secured to the tower. (link)

At least three of the six accidents, Lekutis says, citing industry documents, occurred on AT&T projects.

On May 21, AT&T (T) issued a press release describing its $20 billion roll-out of a nationwide 3G network. It promised to have 275 of the markets it serves in the U.S. 3G-ready by the end of June, and to finish the remaining 75 by the end of the year (see here). AT&T is the exclusive U.S. carrier for Apple's (AAPL) iPhone. A new, 3G version of that device is widely expected to be released in June.

A spokesman for AT&T Mobile confirms that Jonathan Guilford was working on a tower for an AT&T 3G network, but denies that his death or the others had anything to do with the June deadline. "That is a software upgrade," says William Marks. "You go to each tower and use a laptop to perform the upgrade at the base station at the bottom of the tower. There is no need to climb towers."

Marks acknowledges that AT&T is continuing to bring 3G networking to new markets in the U.S., work that involves building new towers and installing new antennas. But he says that this is part of the company's broader 3G roll-out, and unrelated to any events in June.

On April 21, after the first two deaths on its projects, AT&T called for a construction stand down and issued an order to subcontractors that read, in part:

"AT&T ... requires you to hold, at a minimum, a half-day safety refresher training course this week with all of your construction employees and subcontractors providing services for AT&T. Upon completion of the safety refresher training this week, AT&T expects that you will reinforce this training with additional random safety checks at the construction sites to ensure that appropriate safety measures are being used."

AT&T's Marks prefers to describe the order as a "refresher course," rather than stand down. "We consider the safety of our contractors and our employees to be our first priority," he says.

[Photo courtesy of Wireless Estimator.]

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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