A proposal by Palo Alto officials to create a citywide plan for cell towers is unlikely to prevent AT&T from installing dozens of antennas at local neighborhoods in the coming months, the company informed the city in a letter Monday.
The City Council on Monday directed staff to solicit proposals from communication companies that would help the city come up with the wireless-communication plan. The plan will likely rely largely on large "macro" cell towers on the city's substations to boost Palo Alto's cell reception and data capacity and could prompt revisions to the zoning ordinance to make these towers legal.
The plan is Palo Alto's response to a proposal by AT&T to install about 80 small antennas on existing utility poles throughout the city. The company's plan, which drew heavy criticism from some residents in the affected neighborhoods, took a major leap forward last year when the council approved the first 20 antennas in AT&T's "distributed antenna system." But in recent discussions, council members have been leaning toward allowing fewer towers of larger sizes rather than the scattering of DAS equipment.
The council last week heard a presentation from one vendor of communications equipment, Crown Castle, and learned that three macro towers could blanket the entire city with cell coverage, though these towers would have to be between 225 and 280 feet in height. According to Crown Castle, the city could also opt for six smaller towers (about 100 feet high) and 21 DAS antenna.
The council voted 8-0 Monday night, with Gail Price absent, to support a staff proposal to solicit proposals from communication companies and explore zoning changes. But the plan is unlikely to deter AT&T from pursuing its controversial DAS strategy. The company's attorney, John di Bene, submitted a letter to the city Monday arguing that the proposal to install the macro towers would not "obviate the need for the pending DAS nodes and additional macro sites to address coverage and capacity needs within the city."
"AT&T's current network investments in the city are necessary irrespective of whether the city-owned macro sites become available in the future," di Bene wrote.
Attorney Paul Albritton, who has been representing AT&T at recent public hearings in Palo Alto, echoed a similar sentiment in his own letter to the council. He, like di Bene, pointed out in this letter that federal regulations bar the city from restricting AT&T to set up its DAS nodes. He also argued that it is too "optimistic" to expect the city to revise its height limits to allow the cell towers in a "timely manner."
"One again, while AT&T appreciates staff's proactive approach to these issues, the City cannot consider macro facilities at City-owned substations to be a timely alternative for existing network expansion plans," Albritton wrote.
The council swiftly approved the staff proposal Monday, with Councilman Larry Klein saying that it clearly lays out what the city is trying to accomplish when it comes to cell equipment. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd agreed.
"I'm excited that we're moving forward on this," Shepherd said. "This is a good thing for Palo Alto."