Palo Altans treasure their privacy, even at the expense of wireless reception.
So when AT&T proposed installing two Wi-Fi antennas on the balcony of Hotel President in downtown Palo Alto, dozens of Hotel residents came out to Monday night's City Council meeting to protest the plan.
Despite the residents' concerns about the potential health and privacy impacts of the new antennas, the council voted 8-1, with Karen Holman dissenting, to give AT&T permission. The company claimed that the new equipment is necessary to keep up with swelling demand for wireless services downtown. The company already has antennas on the roof of the seven-story building.
"This is the least intrusive means for filling the increasing gap in capacity that AT&T has identified in this downtown area," AT&T attorney Paul Albritton told the council Monday.
The council's approval followed recommendations from planning staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission, which voted 5-1 to support the project. The planning commission also required AT&T to submit evidence that the new technology's radiation would be within federal guidelines and asked the company to install and maintain the new technology without entering residents' apartments.
AT&T brought back a report from its consultant indicating that the antennas' radio-frequency emissions would be at 5.7 percent of the Federal Communication Commission's standards for health and safety. AT&T also pledged to use a cherry picker to install the new technology, obviating the need to enter residents' apartments.
That was enough to satisfy the council, which heard the residents' concerns but ultimately sided with AT&T.
"Good Wi-Fi and cellular access is something we need in Palo Alto," Councilman Greg Scharff said. "It's a balancing of interests.
"We may have struck the right balance here with the planning commission's actions and (planning) director's approval."
Residents, however, saw things differently and asked with the council to kill the proposal. T.J. Loebbakka characterized the AT&T plan as little more than a scheme to reap financial gain at the expense of the residents. Mary Riordan said she was concerned about maintenance workers being right outside her window, invading her privacy. Another resident, Michelle Kraus, agreed.
"We don't want a precedent set that curtails tenants' privacy rights as pertains to commercial side-businesses," Kraus said.
Albritton said the number of wireless users nationally has been skyrocketing since 2003, going from fewer than 100 million seven years ago to about 300 million today. He said AT&T projected that, without the new antennas, the area around the Hotel President would reach its maximum capacity for cell phones and data usage in 2012.
The proposal for Hotel President is one of two recent AT&T projects to encounter opposition from Palo Alto residents. The company's plan to install a cell tower at St. Albert the Great Church on Channing Avenue also attracted scrutiny and some opposition from area residents. One resident, Stephen Stuart, threatened to end the City of Palo Alto's free Internet connection (which he had helped arrange in 1994) after city planners gave the proposal the green light.
Leon Beauchman, director of the Wireless Communications Initiative for Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, urged the council to work with wireless providers and the community to improve wireless reception throughout the city.
"It has been suggested that if you just move this some place else, this issue will go away," Beauchman told the council. "I think you realize that, this being Palo Alto, if you move this somewhere else you'll just have a different group of people sitting there."
Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd was one of several council members who said the AT&T proposal is appropriate and merits support.
"Having Palo Alto become known as an area where we don't have dead zones is very critical for our economic development and our emergency preparations," Shepherd said.