Editorial: City should jump on cellular solution

Locating antennas at power substations could be start of comprehensive policy

The City Council has an opportunity to end the often divisive neighborhood fights over installation of small cell phone antennas by simply making space available to install much larger and more powerful antennas at a few city-owned utility substations, and even one on the roof of City Hall.

The possible solution was outlined to the council by a consultant Monday, who described several plans, including one that would need only three antennas of up to 280 feet to cover most of the city, although he acknowledged that such a plan might not pass muster with residents.

But a "hybrid option" featuring five thin towers of 100-125 feet could be nestled among equipment at five of the city's utility substations, and with the addition of a sixth unit on top of City Hall, could cover most neighborhoods. About 20 smaller "micro" antennas would be required to fill in some major gaps in this option.

Some neighborhoods will object to even a few of the smaller antennas favored by AT&T, but when coupled with the relative handful of larger towers, we believe this configuration will go a long way toward helping the city balance the insatiable demand for cellular bandwidth with some residents' objections to having a wireless transmitter anywhere near their home.

Precedent exists for the installation of the larger "macro" towers, which are already in place at three local fire stations, including one disguised as a fake tree. A Planning and Community Environment Department official told the Weekly that "the intent of the 'macro' approach is to allow the city to better dictate the location of tower facilities and to minimize the need for DAS (micro) and other antenna facilities in other parts of the community."

From the city's perspective, there are significant advantages to creating a network of cellular towers at utility substations, including:

• A readily available inventory of tower locations on pre-approved sites

• The ability of the city's fiber optic network to be used by wireless carriers to "backhaul" data between tower locations

• The ability of substations to would provide wireless carriers access to pre-installed power and equipment housings

• The flow of revenue that could come to the city under long-term leases of the facilities.

The staff report notes that one obvious advantage of using a few substation sites for wireless antennas "would be blending common aspects of facilities everyone needs and leveraging the common characteristics of both the utility substation and macro cell towers."

If the council agrees to embark on the 'hybrid' concept in the next few weeks, one of the first steps would be to retain a wireless communications consultant to evaluate the potential sites and designs for towers and antennas. The consultant would have to determine what impact a wireless tower would have on each utility substation. Also, the city will have to modify zoning regulations, including raising the height limits for public facility zoning from 75 to 125 feet in order to install the towers on each of the designated substation sites.

Even if the city were to authorize the macro tower network, carriers cannot be forced to locate their transmitters on the new system if they prefer to use the smaller, micro antennas. However, the staff report said the city could offer favorable lease rates and a streamlined process for approving permits to make it more attractive for multiple carriers to place their equipment on the macro towers. This could help meet the city's goal of centralizing transmitters rather than having each carrier go in a different direction.

It is totally appropriate for the city to provide space at its utility substations for cellular transmitters. The city has owned and operated utilities here for nearly 120 years and more recently has invested in a successful fiber network ring to connect its utility substations and other city facilities and commercial businesses.

But telecommunications services have been provided to residents by private companies, which have installed a patchwork of antennas on city light poles and other equipment, as well as on private property.

A new network of macro antennas could change all that by providing space to multiple carriers in a much more reliable, centralized environment. Such a system would allow the city to select tower locations and reduce the need for micro installations, which many residents consider ugly and noisy. It is possible that a communications company could provide upfront funding for a new hybrid system and provide the city with some steady rental income, all of which, in our opinion, adds up to an appealing proposition.

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Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 29, 2012 at 11:25 am

City Council: PLEASE DO NOT OVERLOOK THE POOR CELLULAR COVERAGE IN THE FOOTHILLS. Most cellular phone, except for Verizon, have very poor coverage west of Hwy 280. Verizon still has significant dead spots. With a good percentage of the city in the foothills all the way up to Skyline Blvd, please do not leave us in the dark ages.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 29, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Most emergency responders rely heavily on cell phones. If you do not have cell coverage where you live, like the Foothills, then your emergency responders will also not have coverage. This could be a huge problem if there is a large fire in the Foothills with multiple agencies responding and limited radio bands available to them.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2012 at 7:41 am

> If you do not have cell coverage where you live, like the Foothills,
> then your emergency responders will also not have coverage.

This issue of (effectively) tactical emergency communications is one that the public expects those employed in the public safety side of the public sector to engage, and solve. While the use of local cell phone service is one obvious solution, so is the use of Satellite Phones (SatPhones):

Satellite Phones:
Web Link

Vorizon Satellite Phones:
Web Link

GPS-enabled SatPhones:
Web Link

This is another of those situations where having a regionalized public safety "force" makes more sense that these small, localized, police and fire departments, which are not likely to have the personnel who are not provided the time, and funding, to keep abreast of all of the latest advances in voice/data communications.

Moreover, if people up in "the hills" are having cellphone service issues, there is no reason that they shouldn't shift to Satphones, even if there is additional cost involved. Public safety only goes so far--then your personal safety depends on you.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 30, 2012 at 8:13 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Be aware that the sat phone system is easily overloaded and usually unavailable in a major emergency. Emergency crews sent to Katrina had no cell phone coverage and all the sat phones lines were tied up 24/7 by the news networks. New cell phone channels reserved exclusively for emergency providers will help but they still require cell phone coverage.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2012 at 8:17 am

The micro transmitters use less power and require your cellphone to radiate less power. The neighborhoods may object to them but more micro towers is a better alternative to three huge towers or macro towers at electric substations.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 30, 2012 at 10:00 am

> Sat Phones susceptible to congestion
Web Link

Where large scale disasters are concerned, this has proven true in the past. For small scale emergencies, such as a fire in “the Hills”, it’s hard to believe that the small number of additional calls that emergency crews would generate would overwhelm the current service.

However, this point again reinforces the need to regionalize various aspects of the public safety communications network. While there is on-going work to do this, all of the issues have not been resolved, and may not for some time to come.

There have been a number of suggestions made, here and there, that even Federal support, in terms of a national communications grid, complete with both communications satellites, with terrain-sensing capabilities (read fire detection), should be provided to the states, particularly those (like California) which has a lot of forestation, and is sparsely populated in some places. Unfortunately, nothing much has materialized along those lines.

Certainly expanding the capacity for emergency use of SatPhones would be one of the needs that such an effort would provide.

We also need to begin to see cell phones as a defined part of the public safety infrastructure. That creates a certain set of problems, since the public process tends to get in the way of effective delivery of services. However, if/when Cities develop emergency plans, the security of the cellular/wireless data communications networks need to be included in these plans.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 30, 2012 at 11:21 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"For small scale emergencies, such as a fire in “the Hills”, it’s hard to believe that the small number of additional calls that emergency crews would generate would overwhelm the current service."

The small fire in the Oakland hills did overwhelm the communications system even before it became a big fire.

Santa Clara County would do well to fo;;ow San Mateo County with its single fire dispatch for all fire agencies and a true county-wide communication system with common frequencies. Menlo Park fire just installed a hardened state of the art communication 100 ft communication tower at its East Palo Alto station.

"19 June 2012
Hello Directors

As you can see by the attached photograph, the monopole communications mast at Fire Station 2 was installed on the site this morning. Perhaps not beautiful to some, to me it is a site for sore eyes and represents a significant step forward in strengthening our critical communications backbone. The work at the site is starting to show the real picture of what our shared vision of the future and a resilient and modernized emergency facility looks like.

The emergency generator, above ground diesel fuel tank, hardened communications building and 100 foot communications mast is above the 500 year flood plain. Should we ever have a flood or earthquake these items and systems should provide us with the proper tools to effectively serve the community during disaster or for normal day to day operations for many years to come.

I’m proud to say it is happening on our watch and thank you again for approving this important community service enhancement project. During Hurricane Katrina I passed several critical emergency facilities that were under water and inoperable. What we are building is truly state of the art and we need to duplicate this same model at Fire Stations 1 and 4 to a lesser degree so that we invest the communities resources in making sure that critical infrastructure is modernized and resilient so that it works for us when we need it most during any emergency.

I think we all have a lot to be proud of as an organization and again thank you for the opportunity as the Fire Chief and former Team Leader for Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3 to put my background, experiences and skills to good use in helping to shape and fill our needs on this backbone project.


Harold Schapelhouman, Fire Chief"

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm

> The small fire in the Oakland hills did overwhelm the
> communications system even before it became a big fire.

Web Link

Oakland was also not able to communicate with many mutual aid resources due to antiquated equipment and lack of access to statewide radio frequencies brought on by the budget restrictions in the preceding years.

The communications system that was "overwhelmed", was, if memory serves, a radio system that was to be used by public sector public safety people. There was a similar failure during the Loma Prieta Quake (1989_, when the public safety people had to commandeer at least one large radio station's frequency (and maybe their equipment) in order to communicate around the Bay Area.

The problems Oakland experienced were, in large part, caused by Oakland. On the other hand, the lack of a "regionalized/coordinated" public safety response can not be placed on Oakland's shoulders alone.

This leaves the fundamental question, even today, do the so-called public safety people really have their act together, when it comes to "coordinated emergency response"?

All communications channels have a finite capacity. They can not carry more than their limiting load. Shifting to a "packetized" system increases the number of simultaneous voice communications that a given frequency range can handle, but this too has a natural limit. Who, in the greater Bay Area, has a list of all of the public/private communications channels, including their capacities? If the answer is no one, this is another reason to press for "regionalization" of various public safety functions.

When we look at the Palo Alto City Council, which of the elected Council Members is likely to demonstrate a basic understanding of these sorts of issues, and provide leadership to further the cause of increased cooperation among neighboring public safety agencies, and possibly, merging to decrease organizational overhead, cost, and increase the level of public safety offered for more-of-less the same, or fewer, dollars?

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

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