AT&T plan gets stormy reception | March 11, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 11, 2011

AT&T plan gets stormy reception

Proposal to affix antenna to phone poles meets with opposition from residents

by Sarah Trauben

An AT&T presentation intended to inform Palo Alto residents about plans to shore up spotty phone reception by installing distributed-antenna systems on existing Old Palo Alto utility poles met with a stormy reception Tuesday night.

Resident Bill Moore told AT&T officials that unless the company were to use existing residential and business Wi-Fi systems to augment coverage, he personally "will fight this ugly, ridiculous-looking tower like crazy."

His statement was met with applause by many of 50 to 60 attendees at the open house held at the Cubberley Community Center Theatre.

AT&T plans to improve its coverage in areas where there are topographical and structural impediments by replacing nine traditional "macrocell" structures with shorter and smaller distributed-antenna systems fed by fiber cable from its existing central office in Mountain View.

The telecommunications company currently has similar installations in Chicago and the Noe Valley and Presidio areas of San Francisco; other proposals are in motion across the Bay Area.

"These technologies are being used to experiment with us," Moore said. In addition to possible health effects, he cited concerns about aesthetics, dropping real-estate values, and the potentially noisy hum of cooling fans in the proposed installations.

Several residents cited a National Institutes of Health study, published Feb. 22 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that cell phone usage changes glucose levels in the brain.

"This is a game-changer," Moore said.

But the antennas themselves emit radiation at least 100 times below Federal Communications Commission safety limits, according to William Hammett, a consulting engineer for AT&T. In most places, emissions are more than 1,000 times below the limits that were last updated in 2006 in response to medical research.

One supporter of the plan, who identified himself as a "frustrated AT&T customer," said the proposed antennas would reduce customers' exposure to power radiated from individual cell phones, which run at higher power when coverage is less accessible.

While health risks were a popular concern at Tuesday's meeting, in keeping with federal legislation, the City of Palo Alto cannot deny a company's application based on concerns about the effects of radio-frequency exposure on human health.

Among other concerns voiced by the audience were the possible implementation of city plans to put utilities underground (currently on hold) and the rationale behind moving forward with the controversial 8-foot antenna tower planned to be installed above St. Albert the Great Church in Palo Alto.

The installations might theoretically obviate the need for the tower, but AT&T continues to seek separate and simultaneous permit application for each proposal, AT&T officials responded.

"Wireless coverage isn't magic: It's infrastructure," AT&T Strategic Affairs Adviser Lane Kasselman told reporters following the meeting.

Permit applications for nine of around 80 sites were filed Feb. 7 with the city. Residents have 15 days, after being notified via mail of the city staff's decision, to request a hearing before the Planning and Transportation Commission before a final decision is made by the City Council.

Editorial Intern Sarah Trauben can be e-mailed at


Posted by NIMBY, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2011 at 9:52 am

Is the real problem that the iphone sucks? Does anyone with a different AT&T cell phone have problems in Palo Alto? If the problem is that the iphone sucks, then the solution is simple: buy something else.

Posted by Jared Bernstein, a resident of Professorville
on Mar 10, 2011 at 10:35 am

Aside: giving residents an known option to put utility wires underground and get rid of the poles would be nice. Like, if 2/3 of residents in a block or other section of town signed up (or voted) to pay 30% of the cost, then the city would resume the "undergrounding" for them in that block or section.

Posted by non-iphone owner, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Responding to NIMBY's question, I have had non-iPhone ATT service for years and can confirm that "one bar" coverage has been my experience across several different phones of varying manufacturers.

Posted by nopoles, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2011 at 11:50 am

Adding cell antennae to the poles makes us stuck with them permanently. It's ridiculous that real estate costs so much in the neighborhood and we still have these unsightly power lines.

Posted by all phones, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 10, 2011 at 12:26 pm

All AT&T phones have terrible coverage in certain areas of Palo Alto. In fact, coverage in Barron Park is almost NIL!! What will AT&T be doing about this? South Palo Alto has the coverage problem, not downtown...

Posted by Dan, a resident of Southgate
on Mar 10, 2011 at 12:49 pm

AT&T coverage in Southgate (by Paly) is terrible: 1 bar standing in the middle of the street turning around like an idiot, trying to make a call. We switched to Verizon because of this.

People, we live in an era of cell phones. Cell phones need antennae to work. AT&T is finally trying to address our complaints about their spotty coverage, and we attack them like they're building a hog farm.

Posted by More-Wireless-Coverage, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm

> Aside: giving residents an known option to put utility wires
> underground and get rid of the poles would be nice.

Back in 1976 (or thereabouts), the Palo Alto City Council "decreed" that the whole city's utilities would be undergrounded. There is (supposed) to be an on-going project that is slowly moving through the city, block-by-block. This project is more "stealth", than not, but is still supposed to be "on-going". At one point, a few years ago, someone associated with the Utility intimated that about 30% of the work was complete.

So .. you don't have to take a vote, you just have to wait.

Posted by Enough!, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Comcast may have it's issues, but the broadband service it provides it outstanding. Fast and 99% connectivity.

For cell phones, I've never had a dropped call on Verizon unless it was from an incoming call by a different provider. Each time the person on the other end kept complaining that their phone kept dropping calls.

Consumer Reports 2011: AT&T dead last in customer satisfaction.

You pay a lot more than any other phone service out there for being dead last.

Posted by Enough!, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

@Dan: When I lived on Churchill and had Sprint, the only coverage I could get was to stand on the line in the middle of the street (while cars whizzed past me in either direction), and you are correct, I felt like an idiot.

Posted by Kesem, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Wireless communication should be treated like a utility for the public benefit. If everyone near the "poles" has the power to stop wireless transmiter then there will be no progress. Nobody wants to live next to a train track, a freeway, an airport, or telephone and electric poles, but we put them in because general public good trumps the individuals living next to them.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm

If residents want underground service, the City will be happy to provide it, for 100% of the cost, not 30%. In addition, if you are the first resident to request the service in your little spot of PA, you get to pay 100% of the cost of the transformer box. At a former residence, the cost to underground our wires to the house (about a 30 foot run) was about $8000 (we chose to keep our above ground wires).

I have AT&T and do not have an iphone, my service is usually fairly good, unless I am in a building.

Posted by More-Wireless-Coverage, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2011 at 1:48 pm

> "This is a game-changer," Moore said

The following two links add some information about this study --

Web Link

The researchers, led by Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, urged caution in interpreting the findings because it is not known whether the changes, which were seen in brain scans, have any meaningful effect on a person’s overall health.


Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism:
Web Link

Hopefully, the Palo Alto Planning people, and City Council will read this material.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Underground utilities are so far down the priority list these days. As the above posters have stated - unless a neighborhood (not a block - it will take a neighborhood) wants come up with the cash, the city will not be digging any trenches soon.

I would welcome any help in improving the ATT signal. Including an antenna in my neighborhood (including the church on Channing).

Posted by More-Wireless-Coverage, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2011 at 2:17 pm

> Underground utilities are so far down the priority list these days.

This was supposed to have been a project that was "self-sustaining", meaning that the utility/individuals paid for it, not the general fund.

Might be interesting to have someone from the Utility explain to us what the status of this project is, and provide at least a 5-year plan for undergrounding.

Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I go freakin' out of town for work and the crazies in Palo Alto come out.

What's wrong with you people? More lower powered antennas will *reduce* your brain exposure to wireless signals, ironically. More signal, less power your phone has to output to reach a tower.

It's like we live among the Amish, not in Silicon Valley. I'm so embarrassed for our community.

As for the whining about the poles, the poles probably were here before you showed up, and yet you moved here anyway. It's like moving next to a night club in South of Market and then complaining about all the noise.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 10, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Toady: 2x!!!

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I like the headline in the Top Stories news list: "AT&T and concerned residents butt heads". I agree that both AT&T and concerned residents are butt heads.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I would like to know how much PA Utilities have spent since 1976 on trimming trees, repairing fallen lines in storms, or from tree cutters, or from squirrels blowing transformers, etc.? With overtime for emergency operations and having crews on standby in stormy weather, all these costs must be huge.

How much did they say back in 1976 it would cost to be put all the lines underground?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Kesem has it right. I have wires front and back, and I hardly ever see them. I would be happier if all the polls were in line and erect, but, hey the trees ain't too classy either.
Resident, one U/G transformer failure and 25 years of tree trimming is blown.

Posted by Eva, a resident of Ventura
on Mar 10, 2011 at 5:57 pm

AT&T service has been horrible since it was Cingular and probably before that. It's frustrating that they are only now concerned with improving service since they are facing competition from Verizon on the iPhone. I am personally counting the days until iPhone 5 comes out this summer to change to Verizon.

Everyone has their AT&T sucks story. Mine is that my calls always drop going southbound on El Camino at Page Mill. This is ironic as the AT&T store is across the street. Maybe they can start by putting a cell tower on their roof?

Posted by just thinkin', a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm

As someone continually bombarded by satellite signals drilling "American Idol" into the LCD as a LOP, bite me if having steady cell service in toooo fricking scarry coppared to extra hours of OWN (wasn't Lifetime enough?????)
Sorry Mom.............

Posted by just thinkin', a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Sorry for typo---


Posted by Toady has it right, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Palo Alto, of all places, to get the basic physics backwards. Toady is right! Higher bars means your phone operates at a lower power. The phone exposes you to hundreds of times more powerful radiation while it is transmitting than the tower's radiation does (unless you climb up the tower and sit in front of the antenna). The solution to any purported health problems is either a) more towers, or b) ban all cell phones.

A phone's maximum transmit power is about 1 watt, but it's only a few inches from your head. The tower antenna's transmit power is 50-100 watts, and it's focused into a 1/3 sector. And if the power drops off as the inverse square of the distance (it's actually more; typically inverse fourth). Skipping the math details (they're easy), the phone at 3" from your head and the tower at only 100 feet from your head means the phone's radiation is about 500 times the tower's. Better keep those calls short. And that's only 100 feet from the tower and assuming you're in the direct beam (which you'd have to climb some roofs to get to). In reality the factor is probably well over 1,000.

Folks, we're attacking completely the wrong problem. If you want less cell phone radiation, and you assume we use cell phones, then you want more towers -- evenly blanketed everywhere, all close by and running at low power. That is the best possible approach if there are health concerns from radiation.

Posted by mutti, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 10, 2011 at 8:02 pm

We need these towers in Palo Alto -- at the Little League park, or on top of utility poles, or a church tower. The cell phone use is going up and up. The signal strength is going down and down. The physics is simple -- the farther you are from an antenna, the more power your phone emits up next to your ear. That's a straight shot to the brain.
Lowering property values in Palo Alto? You've got to be kidding! Not even a nation-wide housing crash lowered our house prices. They aren't going up quite so fast anymore -- too bad. Talk to people in Modesto or Phoenix or Las Vegas about lowering house prices.

Posted by from Menlo, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm

I had poor reception with Cingular before I had Verizon, before I switched to an iPhone, so the reception issues are NOT iPhone related. I also had dropped calls on Verizon, so although I agree they have a stronger network, they also have dead zones.
And to the person who is waiting for iPhone to be out on Verizon, it's already here. It came out last month.

I think we need the towers so we won't get as much radiation from using our phones. This whole thing is silly!

Posted by a Sprint user, a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 11, 2011 at 1:16 am

Here is a link to a web page I found that ATT set up to promote this plan:

Web Link

Under the DAS tab, there are links to the applications which have the current coverage maps, potential pole locations and more photos.

What I find curious is that the maps in the application show much worse current coverage (large gaps), than showed by the online coverage viewer at ATT wireless web page (colored as Best, with no gaps)(Web Link).

Our household use Sprint and Verizon, and don't have many coverage issues in our area.

My concern is the that these DAS antennas will make the utility poles they are mounted on, permanent. And the utility poles and wires they support will now never go underground.

Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 11, 2011 at 8:02 am

<More lower powered antennas will *reduce* your brain exposure to wireless signals...>

Fully agree with Toady here.

<The phone exposes you to hundreds of times more powerful radiation while it is transmitting than the tower's radiation does (unless you climb up the tower and sit in front of the antenna). The solution to any purported health problems is either a) more towers, or b) ban all cell phones.>

Fully agree here with 'Toady has it right'.

Reliance on science is of importance here; the arguments against towers tend to tilt to the emotional, leaving physics and biology out of the discussion.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2011 at 10:29 am

Toady and JA3+ are making reasonable arguments, but the fact is that we don't understand enough to know whether they are correct. In the absence of any hard scientific data elucidating the mechanism by which cell phone signals can affect biological systems it is impossible to come up with a prudent plan to reduce the risk. Toady assumes that the risk comes from intensity and that longer-time exposure to a lower level signal (i.e 24 hrs a day from a tower) is less hazardous than short exposure to a higher-level signal, but we don't know that for sure.

For 60 Hz EM exposure there has been some evidence that there are windows of field level that are hazardous and that fields above and below that level are harmless. In that case if you reduce the intenisty to which you are exposed you might unwittingly be increasing the hazard by dropping from a harmless level to the hazardous level.

WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING THE UNDERLYING MECHANISMS YOU CANNOT COME UP WITH A PRUDENT PLAN TO REDUCE RISK. At the moment there is no definitive science to tell us the mechanism, so there is no way to be sure what effect any of your actions will have on the risk.

Posted by Robert, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 11, 2011 at 10:37 am

There are definitive 20+ year studies showing absolutely no negative health effects from cell phone radiation, why is this even being discussed as an issue?

Posted by nopoles, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 11, 2011 at 1:50 pm

"As for the whining about the poles, the poles probably were here before you showed up, and yet you moved here anyway"

Not true. I was born here.

"What's wrong with you people?"

Nothing. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve the esthetics of one's surroundings.

Posted by not a problem, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 11, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I don't have a problem with the distributed antennas. They go on top of existing poles... which I rarely see because I'm too busy looking down in order to navigate the horrific roads and uneven pavement (which is a much worse problem).

I have had phones of all shapes, makes, and sizes from various carriers over the past 15 years. Not one carrier stood out above the rest. The coverage here is terrible. Period. It's an embarrassment to think we are in the heart of silicon valley and we have no signal most of the time. As for me, please put as many small antennas around as possible for redundancy, esp. in case of emergency....

Posted by Jerryl, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 11, 2011 at 6:40 pm

It is unfortunate that Ms Trauben chose to highlight the comments of the loudest member of the audience. My grandmother used to say "An open mouth reveals an empty head.". Apparently true in this case. Opponents are always seeing greener pastures somethere else. When fighting Cell Towers they say "Why not the new DAS technology?". Then, when AT&T actually proposes a plan to implement DAS, the Luddites cry becomes "Why doesn't every business and home make their wifi access points wide open (remove the passwords) and let everybody make cell phone calls through other peoples broadband connections.

These people have no sense of the practicality or impracticality of these ideas they bandy about. An uncharitable conclusion would be that they are just trying to muddy the waters.

I want good coverage everywhere I go. I don't expect to have to stop in front of somebody's house to make a call. I want to make calls or Google something when I'm in the park, at a sporting practice, walking in the baylands, etc. This, naturally, requires infrastructure. The very design of the cellular system is based on relatively uniform signal levels in each "cell" and the system is designed for channel reuse by base stations a couple cells over. So the very design prevents any provider from blasting out high power levels from any tower--he would only be jamming himself at another site.

The signal levels that providers strive for are on the order of a nanowatt, or 1/1,000,000,000th of a watt. This is so much less than what is hitting your ear from your own phone that any reasonable person would realize that talk of hazards from the RF put out by a cell tower. Sure it is 24/7 but if you use your phone even 15 minutes a day that means you are using it 1/100th of continuously.
Since the power ratio is a billion times stronger from the phone's radiation (due to the inverse square law), it seems manifest that concerns about the towers are misplaced.

Posted by Peninsula Commuter, a resident of another community
on Aug 4, 2011 at 5:50 pm

As a utility person I consider AT&T's installation unsafe. Not because of radiation, but because the antennas are installed directly over the 12,000 volt high voltage wires. These installations belong at the same level on the pole as the other AT&T/Comcast equipment - 6 feet below the high voltage wires.

I agree that AT&T's proposal is damm ugly. I would not want one in my back OR front yard. The city where I live does it better - AT&T installs a single transmitter on a separate wood pole. Much cleaner looking, and my cell phone coverage is fine.

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