Palo Alto expects dozens of new wireless facilities

City seeks to balance improving wireless coverage and protecting neighborhood aesthetics

Ready or not, dozens of new wireless facilities will soon be on the way to Palo Alto.

That was the main message that emerged Monday night during the City Council's wide-ranging discussion of cell towers, distributed-antenna systems and other facilities designed to improve wireless service in the famously tech-savvy city.

The discussion was prompted by a string of recent applications, including two AT&T proposals that ran into intense opposition from groups of local residents. In one case, an AT&T proposal to install a cell tower at St. Albert the Great Church in Crescent Park fell through after the church pulled out under pressure from neighbors. In another case, AT&T received the council's approval for two wireless antennas at Hotel President on University Avenue, despite heated opposition from a group of Hotel residents.

By all indications, these applications are just the tip of the iceberg. AT&T has filed applications for nine Distributed System Antennas (smaller facilities that can occupy existing poles) and plans to install dozens more over the next two to three years.

The city is also currently weighing five "macrocell" applications -- a monopole, a faux tree and three changes to existing facilities -- according to a report from the Planning and Community Environment Department.

Planning director Curtis Williams estimated that the city would receive about 50 applications for one type of wireless-communication facility or another over the next two to three years.

To be sure, many in Palo Alto welcome the new facilities. Dozens of residents and business owners have sent emails to council members prior to the Monday meeting, complaining about spotty cell-phone reception and asking them to encourage new wireless facilities. New infrastructure, they say, is necessary to eliminate dead zones and speed up data transfers.

"It is embarrassing (and ironic) to drop calls every time I drive past Hewlett Packard on Page Mill Road, considering that the Silicon Valley originated there," wrote Layne Court resident Serdar Uckun. "Please support AT&T's plans to improve wireless and data coverage in Palo Alto."

Joint Venture of Silicon Valley, a public-private coalition of business, government, academic and community groups, is also lobbying for improved wireless infrastructure and arguing that the region's existing wireless infrastructure is dangerously close to reaching its capacity. Leon Beauchman, a former AT&T executive who is directing Joint Venture's Wireless Communications Initiative, said the number of cell phone users, particularly ones with smartphones, has risen dramatically in recent years. In January, 65.8 million people in the United States had smartphones, an 8 percent increase over the previous quarter.

Dieter Preiser from the firm RCC Consultants told the council that more than 40 percent of households in the nation no longer have landlines. Furthermore, about 75 percent of 9-1-1 calls originate from wireless phones, he said. To make matters more complicated, technology is constantly changing, requiring carriers to pursue new facilities.

"It's not static," Preiser said. "Technology is evolving to meet demands of the consumer -- that of course requires carriers to modify existing sites and add sites."

Palo Alto currently has about 70 wireless-communication facilities, most of which have been built with little fanfare and scant opposition. But efforts to build new cell towers and wireless antennas are becoming more controversial as carriers zoom in on residential neighborhoods with spotty service. Preiser noted that one of the most critical priorities of wireless carriers these days is to improve in-building coverage.

Palo Alto has been encouraging installation of new wireless-communication facilities in commercial areas, particularly on existing poles. Proposals based in residential zones are required by the city's zoning code to undergo a more stringent review process than those that would share space with other equipment.

Even so, carriers are increasingly looking to install facilities in residential neighborhoods, where the need is greatest.

"We're getting to a point now, as we've seen, that there aren't a lot of locations left to service residential areas that aren't in residential zones," Williams told the council. "That's one of the problems and concerns."

The council generally agreed that new infrastructure is necessary to improve the city's wireless service -- an objective that several members said should be a high priority. The key, according to Councilman Greg Scharff, is to achieve this without saddling neighborhoods with ugly structures.

"The important thing is -- how do we get the best possible coverage while maintaining aesthetics?" Scharff said.

Mayor Sid Espinosa recalled a trip he took last year to Tibet to climb Mount Everest. While he was hiking the mountain, he recalled hearing his guide's cell phone ring. The guide told Espinosa that the Chinese government has installed towers throughout the nation, ensuring that there were no dropped calls in Tibet. Espinosa admitted to the guide that his city, his street and even his house get dropped calls.

One of the council's key objectives is reaching out to residents and making sure they understand the need for wireless facilities and the city's process for reviewing these proposals.

"Because this is such a shift for our community and we know there's more coming down the pipe, we need to do what we can to avoid a large community fight every time one of these applications come forward," Espinosa said. "There was a time not so long ago where we didn't see a large protest after an application came in.

"I think we need to accept that reality and think about how we as a council lead the conversation across the community."

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Like this comment
Posted by Mark
a resident of University South
on May 17, 2011 at 12:34 am

Personally, it worries me that there are areas in Palo Alto where if I make a 9-1-1 call on my phone, the cell reception could be so bad that my call gets dropped. I'm not sure if this concern is justified, but this is a life-safety concern.

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned Parent and Resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2011 at 7:55 am

I think the key is responsible placement of cell towers. Placing them near our most vulnerable populations who have no say in the matter should be our greatest concern. That is why I'm opposed placing cell towers near schools. Children are most vulnerable to the potential harm of radiation from cell towers, and they have no say as to whether or not these are placed near schools (where they go to every day for years on end). I think the best place to locate these cell towers are in industrial areas. Also keep in mind that cell towers can be tweaked to extend coverage range.

Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 17, 2011 at 8:26 am

svatoid is a registered user.

"Placing them near our most vulnerable populations who have no say in the matter should be our greatest concern."
Why? What are these populations vulnerable to?

"Children are most vulnerable to the potential harm of radiation from cell towers,"
Please provide proof for your claim. This is another example of a cheap scare tactic.
As many people will tell you and the scientific evidence shows there is no evidence of harm from cell towers. Many people will say that there is more harm from holding a cell phone to your ear (if there is any harm at all).
Do you use a cell phone?
What about radiation from wifi or electrical wiring?

These claims by NIMBYIsts and know-nothings are ridiculous. we just went through a whole soap opera over this orchestrated by a husband and wife team who promptly packed up and left town. They provided no proof whatsoever for their claims. Of course, this was no problem for our city council and architectual review board who had no problem kowtowing to them.

Like this comment
Posted by Read
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

Web Link

Please read before making a conclusion about the "dangerous" levels of radio frequency.

Like this comment
Posted by It's-In-The-Air
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2011 at 9:56 am

From reading this article, there does not seem to be any specific direction on the part of the Council to Staff to expedite cell phone tower applications. As usual, a lot of talk, but nothing concrete in the words.

One of the things that would be interesting is to have a coverage map created by the various vendors, and made available on the City's web-site. This coverage map would provide information about signal strength, and radiation densities, at locations around the city. Also, it might be interesting to also include the average upload/download speeds, by carrier, on this map. These numbers might vary, depending on a number of factors, but the bigger the numbers, the better for the cell phone user.

Some interesting data from the various consultants. However, no data about the number of cell phone users who live/work in Palo Alto, or the number of calls a day that are made, or the number of dropped calls that occur every day. Dropped call data is recorded by the carriers, so this sort of information is available, on a per-tower basis. Interesting, that none of our august City Council members didn't ask questions about just how good/bad the current cell service is. No doubt that might be embarrassing to some carriers, but if they want more towers, then there has to be a reason.

Let's hope that the towers are approved, and the community can move on to more important matters.

Like this comment
Posted by From Evergreen
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 17, 2011 at 11:17 am

If young people are so "vulnerable" to mobile phone towers "radiation" how can it be I see so many of them, including those that look to be middle school age and even younger, using cell phones that appear to be their own, presumably provided to them and paid for by their parents?

Like this comment
Posted by huh
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 17, 2011 at 11:23 am

It amazes me that we supposedly have one of the most highly-educated populations of any city in the US, and yet the unscientific rantings of the neo-aluminum-foil-hat crowd are allowed to derail progress. I think all that higher education must teach people how to get their way by being obstructionist.

The only possibly persuasive argument I have heard against residential location of cell towers is their emission of noise. Any factual accounts of the intensity and range of the noise?

Like this comment
Posted by Annie Noid
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 17, 2011 at 11:38 am


This makes TOTAL SENSE. It explains why my cat refuses to come when called. The cell tower radiation has cooked her brain and she can no longer make the logical choice of returning into the house when her name is called.

Since cats have thin skulls...the cell tower radiation damages her brain resulting high cat stupidity.

I'll certainly be able to prevent additional damage by making her wear the beautiful aluminum foil shielding hat and coat I knitted last summer when they were threatening to put up a new cell tower at Eichler Swim and Tennis Club.

Thank you so much for keeping me informed.

Like this comment
Posted by Jason C
a resident of Downtown North
on May 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

svatoid, for once you got it right. Stout fellow!

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I watched the webcast of the session and was dismayed by the poor quality of advice the Council was getting. The consultant came across as a paper-shuffler with no feel for the technology or the issues (Example, his understanding of a femtocell seemed to be little more than "it's really small"). _Part_ of it may have been that he was jet-lagged or sleep-deprived, and he may have been doing the presentation with little prep.

The presentation by Joint Venture Silicon Valley was embarrassing, feeling like a quickly slapped together compendium of slogans and the like. However, some of the speakers during public comment were also from JVSV and came across as being better choices to have made the presentation.

I hope that Council and Staff were still able to concentrate by the time that public comment rolled around because several of the speakers made good points about some of the nonsense that had come before. One in particular was that it was wrong to regard cellular communications as inherently superior to other distribution scheme--that what is important is the content and how effectively it is carried. If I had been there, I would have added that ensuring that people waiting for a restaurant table could play Angry Birds, rather than talking to each other, is not a compelling need.

At least one member of Council seems infected by the notion that our ranking for cellular usage against other countries is important, ignoring that those "better" countries were forced to resort to cellular because install landlines was too expensive, either to create (developing countries) or to expand (built-out countries such as in Europe).

Like this comment
Posted by Anne Noid
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 17, 2011 at 4:54 pm

@ Jason C

What wonderful research you have uncovered. Well...that really does settle it. Cell phones not only fry cat brains (my cat is definitely has a fried brain due to cell phone radiation), but also kill honey bees.

At least there could be no reason to believe that a bunch of scientists standing around jabbering on cell phones near a bee hive could possibly stress bees out. Bees are way to smart for that.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Kelly
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Why not just put up a big antenna on City Hall? Allow all the cell phone providers to rent a piece of it.

Like this comment
Posted by Canary in the Coal Mine
a resident of Downtown North
on May 17, 2011 at 6:26 pm

"To date, medical studies in this country and abroad overwhelmingly suggest that RF emissions are not a health risk."

This is the industry position, not a fact. Radio frequency emission limits in this country are based on the amount the microwaves cause physical heating of sample tissue. These obsolete "standards" do not take into account how microwave emissions effect the subtle energy signaling mechanisms used between cells of living beings. Please read The Bioinitiative Report Web Link

Or watch the recent video, Full Signal: Web Link

Mercola has some good information as well: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 18, 2011 at 12:04 pm

One issue which was not discussed on Monday night by Council but was raised when AT&T sponsored a meeting in the Cubberley Theater about six weeks ago.

The problem is noise. The proposed 80 antennas to be placed on top of Utility Poles and street light fixtures have a box about one-third the way up the pole. This box has a fan inside which emits a constant humming sound. If you live near one of these poles the constant humming sound may be really annoying. If you sleep with your window open you may hear it all night.

Like this comment
Posted by Ron T
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Very informative presentations. Thank you Planning Department staff and City Council for taking the initiative to hold this work shop and stimulate discussion on this important topic.

Like this comment
Posted by It's-In-The-Air
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2011 at 10:41 am

> constant humming sound may be really annoying. If you sleep with
> your window open you may hear it all night.

Will this noise be as load as Caltrain's whistles and bells blaring up to midnight, and starting again around 5AM? Or what about the noise from the Palo Alto airport? This is on-going most of the day?

And how loud is this noise? Anyone ask for the results of an audio measurement of the device? And did anyone ask about insulation to reduce the noise from these devices?

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Greenmeadow

on Jun 6, 2017 at 5:06 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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