AT&T's plan to install 20 antennae in three Palo Alto neighborhoods is cheering some residents who are looking forward to improved cell-phone reception. But the proposal has left others with grave concerns.
Minh Nguyen, AT&T area manager in charge of the engineering and construction of the development known as a "distributed antenna system," met with residents at an open house Tuesday (Oct. 11) and explained that the trees in and around Palo Alto pose a challenge for the company to deliver consistently strong signals, which causes phone calls to drop and weak connections in some areas.
"In order for us to stay competitive in the business," Nguyen said, "this technology is the ideal solution to the problem, and it can also meet the growing demand for data in this area."
Unlike a single, large cell-phone tower, the distributed system is "a network of smaller, spatially separated antenna nodes that splits the transmitted signal among themselves to provide wireless coverage for areas with difficult topography," Nguyen said.
Twenty antennae would be placed on top of existing utility poles throughout three neighborhoods: Old Palo Alto, Professorville and part of Midtown.
AT&T's proposal comes as demand for service has grown exponentially, according to Loretta Walker, vice president of external affairs at AT&T.
"Since 2007, we have seen a spike of 5,000 percent in demand for data," she said. "The project will help meet the ever growing needs of local high-tech businesses and data-hungry consumers."
However, not every Palo Altan is happy about the company's application for the first 20 of a planned 80 antennae, which it submitted to the city in September. Lyala Kent brought her 12-year-old daughter to Tuesday's meeting to protest. She said she is concerned about the unknown consequences of long-time exposure to radiation as well as the potential devaluation of her house.
"If I had the money, I would think about moving," Lyala Kent said. "Radiation will be going through our bodies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What is going to happen in 10 years? I can't think of that."
To address such concerns, AT&T invited third-party experts to the meeting. Broadcast and wireless specialist Lynn Bruno, a consulting engineer from Hammett & Edison, Inc., told residents that there's no health risk identified in 60 years of relevant research. She said they have tested the antenna and monitored the highest level of radiation emission anywhere within its radius.
"The level of radiation that emits from the antenna, at even the highest point anywhere within its range, is typically thousands of times below Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards," she said. "The radiation level is comparable to that from a TV and other wireless devices. It's weaker than what a microwave could generate and much weaker than ultra-violet rays."
As for property values, Eric LoVecchio, Realtor and property value consultant with Pacific West Real Estate, said there has been a 6 percent increase of average housing price in those neighborhoods with distributed antenna system coverage in Oakland, according to a study by National Association of Realtors.
"AT&T is doing it in the least intrusive way possible. The infrastructures (the utility poles) are already there. The world is moving in the direction of connectivity. Home buyers today want access to wireless phone and broadband Internet. The generation of buyers want the service," LoVecchio said.
But when the meeting concluded, many residents were still rather skeptical about the plan.
"I would choose to have less exposure to radiation before I know it is safe," Liaoteng Wang said. "If I get to vote, I'll vote against it."
In fact, some walked away with even more questions.
"I think these are complicated issues," said Joan Plastiras. "But I don't have a good feeling here today. They have not resolved my fear. One of the question I asked, which nobody seems to be able to answer yet, is, "What would happen if the DAS fails?" If the system operates normally like they said, it sounds safe. But what if it fails at some point? What will happen? How will that affect the amount of radiation?"
And regarding property values, a woman who wished to remain anonymous asked: "How can they compare Oakland with Palo Alto? The neighborhoods are very different."