Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Towering Kerfuffle

So how exactly did the McCain ranch get such good cell phone service? Well, to invoke an old land-line slogan, Cindy McCain reached out and touched someone.

Early in 2007, just as her husband launched his presidential bid, Cindy McCain sought to resolve an old problem – the lack of cellphone coverage on her remote 15-acre ranch near Sedona, Ariz., nestled deep in a tree-lined canyon called Hidden Valley.

Over the past year, she offered land for a permanent cell tower, and Verizon Wireless embarked on an expensive public process to meet her needs, hiring contractors and seeking county land-use permits.

Verizon ultimately abandoned its effort to install a permanent tower in August. Company spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said the project would be “an inappropriate way” to build its network. “It doesn’t make business sense for us to do that,” he added.

Instead, Verizon delivered a portable tower known as a “cell site on wheels” – free of charge – to the McCain property in June, after the Secret Service began inquiring about improving coverage in the area. Such devices are used for providing temporary capacity where coverage is lacking or has been knocked out, in circumstances ranging from the Super Bowl to hurricanes.

In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon’s offer. “This is an unusual situation,” AT&T spokeswoman Claudia B. Jones said. “You can’t have a presidential nominee in an area where there is not cell coverage.”

Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain’s dealings with the wireless companies stand out because her husband is a senior member of the Senate commerce committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunication services.

Everyone claims it’s all above board, and to make it seem even more so, they’re invoking the Secret Service’s need for cell phone coverage to protect Mr. McCain. That sounds reasonable, but in most cases, even when there’s Secret Service protection involved, somebody has to pay for it. Ford or GM doesn’t just give the government the presidential limousines, and Boeing didn’t donate the 747’s for the Air Force One fleet.

Even if it’s all above board and there’s no quid pro quo, it still looks funny, and you’d think that a senator who sits on the commerce committee would like to avoid even the appearance of having a favor done for him by a corporation whose industry he oversees.

If the righties dismiss this as a nothing-burger, just ask them what they’d do if Barack Obama got a free cell tower at his house. ‘Nuff said.