Downtown Palo Alto could soon have a Wi-Fi network as part of two pilot wireless programs planned by AT&T Mobility, but the unease that some Palo Alto residents have expressed about cell-tower technology over the past several years continues.
The Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing next Wednesday (Feb. 23) on the first of AT&T's plans -- installing two, 12-inch-high Wi-Fi antennas at the Hotel President, a six-story apartment building at 488 University Ave.
Residents living on the hotel's sixth and fifth floors, however, have asked for a hearing, citing health concerns and invasion of their privacy by twice-monthly maintenance crews.
"We are troubled ... about giving permission in perpetuity to a corporation ... to enter our homes whenever AT&T wants or needs to, to maintain a commercial service," residents wrote in a Feb. 16 e-mail to city planners.
Sixth-floor resident Michelle Kraus wrote in an e-mail that AT&T's antennas put "the livelihood, health and safety of the residents of this historic Palo Alto residence in jeopardy."
"AT&T wants to place (the antennas) within feet, not even yards, of where most of us sleep and eat. Even the (Federal Communications Commission) and (National Institutes of Health) have varying views on the long-term safety due to exposure," Kraus said.
The antennas would be placed at each end of the hotel's balcony behind the railing and will not be visible from the street, AT&T's application states. The hotel has been an AT&T Mobility site since January 2000, according to the company.
AT&T has been aggressively upping its Palo Alto presence in the last year to accommodate the city's exponential growth in wireless demand, spokesman Lane Kasselman said. The company launched a technology-development center in Palo Alto in August and has been boosting weak signal spots with additional cell towers.
In addition to the downtown Wi-Fi network, AT&T is proposing to boost its wireless signals in the Old Palo Alto, Evergreen Park and Professorville neighborhoods. It would add antennas on nine existing poles, about 50 feet from the ground, at:
■ 1221 Waverley St., opposite Waverley and Whitman Court
■ 1664 Waverley St. at Lowell Avenue
■ 179 Lincoln Ave. near Emerson Street
■ 1401 Emerson St. near Kellogg Street
■ 119 Coleridge Ave. near Alma Street
■ 1865 Bryant St. near Seale Avenue
■ 135 Rinconada Ave. near Alma Street
■ 255 N. California Ave. near Ramona Street
■ 395 Leland Ave. near Ash Street
AT&T is basing the locations on results of its Mark the Spot application, which allows iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Android users to pinpoint weak signals and convey the information to the company, Kasselman said.
Residents of several streets within 600 feet of the second proposed pilot project received postcards from the city on Feb. 10 directing them to an informational website, www.att.com/wireless4paloalto, and requesting input.
The wireless boost, known as a Distributed Antenna System, would use a web of smaller, lower-power antennas rather than a single larger cell tower to provide service. This enables signals to skirt buildings or other structures that might otherwise block a single-source signal, the AT&T website states.
Residents who received the notice had mixed opinions.
"It doesn't bother me. The antennas might improve the Internet connection, but I don't go on it as much as my wife. I'm a dinosaur -- I have a pay-as-you-go phone," John Malley Lawrence, who lives near 1664 Waverley, said.
Others had nagging concerns about potential health risks.
"We'd like to see research not put out by the AT&T Corporation, who is always for profit. I'd like to know if these antennas are causing any harm," said Diane Rolfe, who lives with her husband, Joe, near 1401 Emerson.
"More specifically, I'm concerned about how it may affect children's health, who are more susceptible than adults. Should these antennas be in a residential area?"
But Joe Rolfe had a different viewpoint:
"We've been surrounded by radio waves all our lives. X-rays are damaging because they have a high energy -- more than a radio wave, which is harmless, in my opinion," he said. "There's a very little chance that these antennas will be a serious risk. However, I am not certain there will be no risk."
Clare Campbell, the city's project manager for the two proposals, said in an e-mail to residents that the city can't by law deny a facility on the basis of potential health issues. The FCC regulates radio-frequency exposure levels and AT&T must comply.
"The only issue the city has purview over is the aesthetics of a project," she said.
AT&T consultants said Wi-Fi antennas give off little radiation -- up to 200 times lower than the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threshold.
According to an October 2010 study by Hammett and Edison, broadcast and wireless consulting engineers, the Wi-Fi antennas would give off about 3 watts when operating at maximum power -- about 0.5 percent of the FCC limit. Power output in other directions, including 63 feet down to the street, would be far lower.
Kasselman said having Wi-Fi in a busy downtown area would benefit customers, who can access service anywhere on the street within the signal area. The company chose downtown Palo Alto because it wanted to locate the Wi-Fi hotspot where there are large concentrations of people, he said.
Wi-Fi coverage would extend about 722 feet -- less than 1/8 of a mile. Access would roughly extend on University from Starbucks near Florence Street east to Webster Street and slightly into the side streets to the south, according to plans.
Wi-Fi could also be beneficial in crises or in large events when everyone is trying to access mobile devices simultaneously, he said.