Although it appeared this week that saner heads prevailed and the 14-day termination deadline will be pushed back, the city was blindsided when Stephen Stuart, one of the founders of the Internet Systems Consortium (ISC), announced March 29 that he was going to pull the plug on Internet service to City Hall and several other municipal buildings after the city approved a cell tower he opposes at St. Albert the Great church on Channing Avenue, in the Crescent Park neighborhood.
An obviously relieved City Manager James Keene announced Monday that the city had reached an agreement with the ISC to keep the Internet up at City Hall until either a new agreement can be reached or the city finds a new provider. The threat to end service by April 14 was not mentioned in the press release issued by the city.
Keene's statement said the city will have a reasonable amount of time to make a transition if it is decided to part ways with the consortium, which has promised to provide some technical assistance if needed. The two sides will meet soon to work out the details, Keene said in the press release.
When playing back the way this incident unfolded there are plenty of missteps to consider.
For example, it appears that over the years the city may have simply lost track of the fact that it had no signed contract with the consortium to provide Internet service for City Hall and other city buildings. This is a shortcoming that should have been discovered long ago by the city's information technology department, which apparently did not realize that the service could be shut down at any time.
Such a contract could have protected the city from the threat to cut off service by Stephen Stuart, who built the original server and arranged the deal to provide free Internet service to the city back in 1994.
Stuart's fit of pique and mean-spirited threat to end the service came after the city's planning department tentatively approved a permit for a 50-foot cell tower on St. Albert's church at 1095 Channing, across the street from his home. It also showed an inability to understand the city's limitations when it considers applications to install cell-phone equipment, and at the time, left no room for negotiations.
Stuart claims that the planning department chose to ignore city laws when it approved the tower, is misreading the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and is ignoring ordinances it has in place that would protect residents. He also contends that a tower would lower property values in the neighborhood.
"This is not a threat. This is not a punishment. This is the consequence of the city not enforcing its laws," Stuart said in his letter to the city, adding that the failure "has vaporized 17 years of good will in one thoughtless act."
Besides threatening to cut off service to City Hall, Stuart said that service to the Arts Center "...will be physically disconnected."
In an attempt to explain the city's position, Keene said the Planning Commission approval was just the first step in a process that sends the cell-tower application to the Architectural Review Board this week and to the Planning Commission, which plans to hold a public hearing on the tower May 4.
In the long run, it is fortunate that this brouhaha brought the city's Internet connection up for public scrutiny. The lack of a formal agreement or service guarantee can now be remedied, and we hope the city will find an Internet provider that will not be swayed to terminate service by the whim of a volunteer worker, who in this case was highly upset by his perception that the city was not listening to residents who opposed the cell tower on his street.
In a March 23 editorial, we suggested that the city find another way to approve cell-tower requests. Rather than forcing residents and wireless carriers into needlessly confrontational hearings, the city should write a new ordinance that would not violate federal telecommunications regulations but simply create a framework for industry and the public to cooperatively decide where new towers are needed.
A model ordinance exists in Richmond, which was patterned after similar measures in the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Albany and Orinda. They are proof that cities can stop the often contentious, and needless, debates about cell-phone towers that can, as it did last week in Palo Alto, lead to clearly counter-productive controversy.