Palo Alto residential neighborhoods may about to experience a significant increase in the number of cell towers along their streets. I think these could threaten aesthetics, safety, noise levels and property valuations.
The Palo Alto City Council is working on a Revised Wireless Ordinance, which together with the Revised Wireless Resolution passed in December, will determine the city's requirements for locating future cell towers and antennas.
Major city budget cuts may lead to a reduction of staff needed to process the cell tower applications and ensure that the public safety and noise codes established are met and maintained. In my opinion, these proposed cuts could favor the demands of the wireless companies over residents' best interests.
Why are cities and towns across America suddenly revising their rules for permitting cell towers? In 2018 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established regulations with no congressional approval, which gave wireless companies the right to erect 5G cell towers on the right-of-ways (streets) of all municipalities in the nation on an accelerated schedule. Meeting this mandated schedule meant that towns, like Palo Alto, had to rewrite their wireless ordinances and shortcut their more thorough process for reviewing residents' needs and welfare before approving all cell towers.
As I understand it, under new FCC rules, wireless companies can threaten cities and their city councils with lawsuits if they do not approve the distances between "small cell" cell towers these companies demand they are entitled to, even though the FCC ruling may soon be overturned in the courts. The wireless companies argue that they need many more cell towers to better serve their subscribers.
However, 5G is a new technology, untested for safety, according to the industry, which will overlap with older 3G and 4G cell towers. It seems to me that it may be hard for wireless companies to prove the optimal number of additional 5G cell towers needed until a few are installed in residential neighborhoods, spaced at the distances from homes and schools that Palo Alto residents are requesting but wireless companies dispute. Who is serving whom?
In my view, there are five elements of the draft Palo Alto Wireless Ordinance (PAWO) that should be of major concern to all residents, especially homeowners. These are:
1. How close to private residences can new 4G/5G cell towers or antennas, referred to in city documents as WCFs (wireless communication facilities), be installed? WCFs will, in many cases, be mounted on neighborhood streetlights or telephone poles. Draft PAWO specifies a no-exception minimum distance of 20 feet from homes, while many residents argue for 100 feet. Twenty feet is about the length of two cars!
2. How far apart WCFs can be installed along our residential streets? Draft PAWO specifies WCFs will be "no less than 600 feet apart." Other towns like Los Altos mandate 1,500 feet between WCFs.
3. How close to day care centers, preschools and K-12 public and private schools can WCFs be installed? Draft PAWO specifies a no-exception minimum distance of 300 feet from a parcel containing a public school. The Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education unanimously requested 1,500 feet from all schools.
4. What is the noise standard for fans cooling the WCFs (these fans can operate as much as 24/7)? Draft PAWO specifies 60 decibels (dBAs), equivalent to restaurant conversation or an air conditioning unit at 100 feet. Mill Valley requires 50 dBAs, one-half as loud as 60 dBAs. Los Altos mandates 45 dBAs.
5. What is the time span for WCF permits or license agreements between the city of Palo Alto and the wireless companies? Draft PAWO specifies that WCF permits are valid for 10 years. Some other towns and cities specify five years. Cell towers mandated today could be legally unnecessary tomorrow. There are presently two bills in Congress (Rep. Anna Eshoo's HR 530 and Sen. Dianne Feinstein's SB 2012) and an appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals aimed at reversing the current FCC ruling.
What is 5G? Unlike the prior 2G-4G wireless devices, which use longer microwaves, 5G uses shorter millimeter waves, which operate at higher frequencies and pulsation levels. Because these milliwaves are short, they do not travel as far, and 5G/4G WCFs need to be closer to homes and businesses than previous taller cell towers.
Termed "small cell," these emit nearly the same radiation as older larger 4G cell towers, some experts state. In addition, 5G WCFs generate more heat than 4G WCFs. To prevent fire hazards, 5G WCFs are commonly installed with cooling fans that may run 24/7. To reduce fan noise to meet decibel levels required by city contracts, the wireless providers can add noise-reducing devices.
I believe that the 60 decibel level in Draft PAWO is too high. The continuous fan noise from 5G WCFs could easily become an intrusive part of our "soundscape."
Now, I hope everyone will immediately write to the Palo Alto City Council with their concerns and requests. Below are standards that I believe strike the optimal balance between wireless company demands and residents' "public welfare":
No exception WCF 100-foot setback from residential homes,
No-exception WCF 1500-foot setback from schools and daycare centers,
No-exception 1,500 feet distancing between WCFs along residential streets
No-exception maximum 45-decibel noise levels from all WCFs.
Unless the council hears from residents right away, pressure from wireless companies and a lack of corresponding community outcry will result in no change to the current PAWO draft.
More information about the dangers of the proposed wireless ordinance can be found in letters sent to the City Council. This city packet show excellent arguments from Palo Alto resident Tina Chow (U.C. Berkeley professor of environmental engineering) on page 28; Dr. Cindy Russell (Physicians for Safe Technology) on page 50; and resident Dan Adams on page 47.
Meredith Einaudi is a past president of the Palo Alto Council for the Arts. She thanks Dr. Cindy Russell, founder of Physicians for Safe Technology, for reviewing this column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.