The debate over whether to allow ATT to improve cell service in Palo Alto using small antenna positioned on the top of existing utility poles will finally come to a head later this month.
Several residents have appealed the approvals for already granted by the Architectural Review Board and Planning Director Curtis Williams to the City Council, which will decide the matter at its meeting on Jan. 23.
Supporters complain about the notoriously bad and under-built AT&T network in Palo Alto and the need for this epicenter of technology to provide reliable cell service. The large number of iPhone and iPad owners in our community put unusual demands on the current system, and AT&T is desperately trying to put in place the needed and long overdue infrastructure.
Ironically, Palo Alto's dense canopy of trees is one of the factors that impairs the reliability of cell service, according to ATT officials.
The appellants, largely people who live next to one of the 19 utility poles initially proposed for the antennas, object on a variety of grounds, including concern over radiation, noise and visual impact.
Federal law constrains local authorities when considering cell phone antenna systems, and specifically prohibits any consideration of health impacts and radiation. Most experts agree that the distributed antenna system (DAS) technology actually reduces radio wave emissions because cell phones use less power when connecting to a close-by DAS than a cell tower.
AT&T consultants claim that a DAS antenna gives off very little radiation, up to 200 times lower than the Federal Communications Commission threshold, or about 3 watts when operating at maximum power. According to the October 2010 study by Hammett and Edison, broadcast and wireless engineers, the antenna would produce about 0.5 percent of the FCC limit. Output in other directions, including a Wi-Fi antenna mounted 63 feet above a street, would be far less at ground level, the experts said.
Because of the federal pre-emption on the health issue, the city's only real regulatory authority relates to the aesthetics of the antenna and related equipment.
When the Architectural Review Board voted to approve the plan, it attached a long list of conditions to minimize the impact of the equipment, including use of trees whenever possible to screen the equipment from view and using colors to make the antennas less conspicuous. The company had already agreed to reduce the number of antennas on each pole from two to one.
We fail to see the aesthetic problems with placing an antenna on top of a relatively small number of 60-foot or higher utility poles. In most parts of town with overhead utilities, street trees already obscure the upper reaches of the poles.
A more legitimate concern is the power units that will be mounted lower on the poles and their visual and noise impact. The company's plan to install battery backups on the utility poles generated a wide-ranging discussion at the ARB meeting, with most concerns expressed about the sound the battery cabinets would make.
An attorney for AT&T said the company would be willing to remove the battery boxes from the proposal, but he stressed the importance of backup power during an emergency or power outage.
Ultimately, the board approved the boxes, but added a condition requiring that AT&T test the equipment's noise level to make sure it complies with local regulations. We are satisfied with this resolution and the ARB's conclusions and other conditions.
With the appeal, by dozens of residents, the plan will get a full airing before the City Council, probably Jan. 23. While we believe the plan should be approved, we hope that future applications for more DAS antennas can go through a better and less antagonistic process.
Next month the Council is scheduled to begin a discussion with planners about how to develop such a framework, action we called for in a March 18 editorial last year. Model ordinances to govern cellular infrastructure are already in place in several Bay Area cities, including Berkeley and Richmond. Palo Alto could be the next to find a way to reduce the bickering over a technology that is now embedded in our culture and is considered much safer than driving your automobile on the freeway.