News

City looks to firm up rules for wireless equipment as legal landscape evolves

Recent federal, judicial decisions make it both easier, harder to reject applications

Palo Alto has received about 70 applications for wireless facilities since 2017. Embarcadero Media file photo.

Despite its reputation as a tech powerhouse and growing reliance on wireless communication, Palo Alto hasn't exactly rolled out the red carpet to the various telecom companies looking to place new equipment on local street poles.

With residents filing appeals against applications for wireless equipment and raising alarms about the health impacts of radio-frequency emissions, the City Council has been gradually rolling out over the past two years new restrictions on where wireless facilities can be built and new rules on what they should look like. In 2019, the council adopted an ordinance banning wireless equipment within 600 feet of schools and designating underground vaults as the preferred alternative for accommodating new wireless equipment. Carriers who choose the less favored option of installing antennas on street poles are required to conceal the equipment with shrouds.

But despite the city's best effort, the reception has been mixed at best. On Monday night, as the council prepared to initiate a new round of reforms to local wireless regulations, it heard from both telecom representatives who complained about the confusion in the city's current process and from residents who argued that the city's rules don't go far enough to protect them.

The latest move to revise wireless rules is spurred by the changing legal landscape surrounding wireless communication equipment. A series of recent decisions — some made by the Federal Communications Commission and others by federal judges — have made it both easier and harder for the city to reject applications.

In a victory for the telecoms, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the FCC to ban cities from enacting moratoria on new applications for wireless facilities, a move that has been proposed in Palo Alto and elsewhere. Courts have also affirmed the legality of "shot clocks" for small wireless facilities, granting cities a limit of 60 or 90 days to review applications.

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

To further strengthen the deadline, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in October a law that provides a "deemed granted remedy" to companies whose applications have not been reviewed within the shot-clock limit, effectively allowing them to proceed as if they're approved without the city's permission.

At the same time, the courts have handed fresh ammunition to the various citizen groups that have expressed concerns about the new equipment. One ruling by an appeals court in Washington, D.C., overturned the FCC's decision to terminate its effort to update its 1996 guidelines for telecommunication equipment. And in another blow to telecom companies, the Ninth Circuit Court tossed out a rule that requires design standards for wireless equipment to be "objective," a ruling that expands the powers of cities to craft new rules pertaining to the aesthetics of wireless equipment.

Wireless equipment set up on a power pole in the 2800 block of Louis Road in Palo Alto. The equipment was installed in November 2019. Courtesy Tina Chow.

The issue has grown increasingly urgent Palo Alto, which has received about 70 applications for wireless facilities since 2017, some encompassing numerous sites, according to staff. Many of these involve replacing existing equipment, though some pertain to installing new equipment on streetlights and utility poles, city planner Sheldon Ah Sing told the council Monday. Jeanne Fleming, who has appealed several of these applications, urged the council to be more aggressive in ensuring that the equipment remains safe and unobtrusive. Speaking for a group of residents, she praised the recent decision by the court to require an update to FCC standards.

"The telecom industry would like to shrug off this decision, but in fact the circuit court ruling represents a turning point, raising doubt as it does about the now out-of-date research that has been the bedrock of the industry's reassurances about possible health hazards," Fleming said.

Tina Chow, a Barron Park resident who teaches civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, similarly argued that the health impacts of wireless equipment have been understated by the telecom industry. She pointed to numerous studies, including one performed by the National Institute of Health, that showed that long-term exposure to radio-frequency radiation causes cancer and DNA damage in rats. She compared telecommunication companies to Big Tobacco and the oil industry in their tendency to mislead the public.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

The topic of health impacts remains in dispute and outside the purview of the council, which is prohibited from considering it in its approval process as long as telecommunication equipment meets FCC thresholds.

Despite this limitation, Fleming and Chow both pressed the council Monday to further firm up and clarify the city's standards for wireless equipment — an effort that the city's land-use commissions undertook in 2020 but paused because of the pandemic. In their request for the city to once again revise the rules for wireless applications they found an unlikely ally — representatives from the very industry they are criticizing.

While critics like Fleming and Chow are preaching safety, telecom providers are seeking more clarity and hoping that Palo Alto's newest push to revise the rules would make the process more efficient and less confusing. Several representatives from Verizon talked on Monday about the problems they have encountered as they tried to navigate Palo Alto's process. Attorney Paul Albritton, who has worked on numerous wireless applications in Palo Alto, noted that over the past two years there hadn't been a single site in which wireless equipment was constructed. A lack of clarity in rules has caused major delays in the company's plans to roll out new wireless equipment.

"We were flooded with hundreds of comments and five notices of incomplete on our applications that delayed the process. … You have to ask yourself, based on the comments you heard earlier this evening, 'Are you OK as a council, are you OK as a city having small cells in Palo Alto to provide improved service, improved connection for your community?'" Albritton said.

For city staff, the new exercise represents both a complex challenge and an opportunity — a chance to reassert some local control over the contentious process of approving wireless applications.

"We want to preserve our local control where we can," Lait said. "We were preempted by some rulings that required us to have objective standards. That was not our preference but that's where we needed to go."

Now that the courts have ruled that standards don't have to be exclusively objective, the city is preparing to reintroduce some subjective standards while also maintaining some objective ones so that telecom carriers know what to submit to the city, Lait said.

The discussion occurred in a rare joint session between the council, the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Transportation Commission — panels that will be heavily involved in devising the new design standards for telecommunication equipment. While the council didn't take any action Monday, just about everyone agreed that the exercise is worth pursuing. Mayor Tom DuBois made a case for further encouraging underground equipment and for considering the noise impacts of the evolving technology.

"I want to make sure we do have connectivity in town, but I want to see us do it in an aesthetically pleasing manner … and technology obviously continues to improve," DuBois said.

A front row seat to local high school sports.

Check out our new newsletter, the Playbook.

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Get uninterrupted access to important local city government news. Become a member today.

City looks to firm up rules for wireless equipment as legal landscape evolves

Recent federal, judicial decisions make it both easier, harder to reject applications

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Nov 16, 2021, 1:37 am

Despite its reputation as a tech powerhouse and growing reliance on wireless communication, Palo Alto hasn't exactly rolled out the red carpet to the various telecom companies looking to place new equipment on local street poles.

With residents filing appeals against applications for wireless equipment and raising alarms about the health impacts of radio-frequency emissions, the City Council has been gradually rolling out over the past two years new restrictions on where wireless facilities can be built and new rules on what they should look like. In 2019, the council adopted an ordinance banning wireless equipment within 600 feet of schools and designating underground vaults as the preferred alternative for accommodating new wireless equipment. Carriers who choose the less favored option of installing antennas on street poles are required to conceal the equipment with shrouds.

But despite the city's best effort, the reception has been mixed at best. On Monday night, as the council prepared to initiate a new round of reforms to local wireless regulations, it heard from both telecom representatives who complained about the confusion in the city's current process and from residents who argued that the city's rules don't go far enough to protect them.

The latest move to revise wireless rules is spurred by the changing legal landscape surrounding wireless communication equipment. A series of recent decisions — some made by the Federal Communications Commission and others by federal judges — have made it both easier and harder for the city to reject applications.

In a victory for the telecoms, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the FCC to ban cities from enacting moratoria on new applications for wireless facilities, a move that has been proposed in Palo Alto and elsewhere. Courts have also affirmed the legality of "shot clocks" for small wireless facilities, granting cities a limit of 60 or 90 days to review applications.

To further strengthen the deadline, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in October a law that provides a "deemed granted remedy" to companies whose applications have not been reviewed within the shot-clock limit, effectively allowing them to proceed as if they're approved without the city's permission.

At the same time, the courts have handed fresh ammunition to the various citizen groups that have expressed concerns about the new equipment. One ruling by an appeals court in Washington, D.C., overturned the FCC's decision to terminate its effort to update its 1996 guidelines for telecommunication equipment. And in another blow to telecom companies, the Ninth Circuit Court tossed out a rule that requires design standards for wireless equipment to be "objective," a ruling that expands the powers of cities to craft new rules pertaining to the aesthetics of wireless equipment.

The issue has grown increasingly urgent Palo Alto, which has received about 70 applications for wireless facilities since 2017, some encompassing numerous sites, according to staff. Many of these involve replacing existing equipment, though some pertain to installing new equipment on streetlights and utility poles, city planner Sheldon Ah Sing told the council Monday. Jeanne Fleming, who has appealed several of these applications, urged the council to be more aggressive in ensuring that the equipment remains safe and unobtrusive. Speaking for a group of residents, she praised the recent decision by the court to require an update to FCC standards.

"The telecom industry would like to shrug off this decision, but in fact the circuit court ruling represents a turning point, raising doubt as it does about the now out-of-date research that has been the bedrock of the industry's reassurances about possible health hazards," Fleming said.

Tina Chow, a Barron Park resident who teaches civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, similarly argued that the health impacts of wireless equipment have been understated by the telecom industry. She pointed to numerous studies, including one performed by the National Institute of Health, that showed that long-term exposure to radio-frequency radiation causes cancer and DNA damage in rats. She compared telecommunication companies to Big Tobacco and the oil industry in their tendency to mislead the public.

The topic of health impacts remains in dispute and outside the purview of the council, which is prohibited from considering it in its approval process as long as telecommunication equipment meets FCC thresholds.

Despite this limitation, Fleming and Chow both pressed the council Monday to further firm up and clarify the city's standards for wireless equipment — an effort that the city's land-use commissions undertook in 2020 but paused because of the pandemic. In their request for the city to once again revise the rules for wireless applications they found an unlikely ally — representatives from the very industry they are criticizing.

While critics like Fleming and Chow are preaching safety, telecom providers are seeking more clarity and hoping that Palo Alto's newest push to revise the rules would make the process more efficient and less confusing. Several representatives from Verizon talked on Monday about the problems they have encountered as they tried to navigate Palo Alto's process. Attorney Paul Albritton, who has worked on numerous wireless applications in Palo Alto, noted that over the past two years there hadn't been a single site in which wireless equipment was constructed. A lack of clarity in rules has caused major delays in the company's plans to roll out new wireless equipment.

"We were flooded with hundreds of comments and five notices of incomplete on our applications that delayed the process. … You have to ask yourself, based on the comments you heard earlier this evening, 'Are you OK as a council, are you OK as a city having small cells in Palo Alto to provide improved service, improved connection for your community?'" Albritton said.

For city staff, the new exercise represents both a complex challenge and an opportunity — a chance to reassert some local control over the contentious process of approving wireless applications.

"We want to preserve our local control where we can," Lait said. "We were preempted by some rulings that required us to have objective standards. That was not our preference but that's where we needed to go."

Now that the courts have ruled that standards don't have to be exclusively objective, the city is preparing to reintroduce some subjective standards while also maintaining some objective ones so that telecom carriers know what to submit to the city, Lait said.

The discussion occurred in a rare joint session between the council, the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Transportation Commission — panels that will be heavily involved in devising the new design standards for telecommunication equipment. While the council didn't take any action Monday, just about everyone agreed that the exercise is worth pursuing. Mayor Tom DuBois made a case for further encouraging underground equipment and for considering the noise impacts of the evolving technology.

"I want to make sure we do have connectivity in town, but I want to see us do it in an aesthetically pleasing manner … and technology obviously continues to improve," DuBois said.

Comments

Joe
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Nov 16, 2021 at 7:25 am
Joe, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2021 at 7:25 am

It should be a journalist's job to fact-check the health concerns when amplifying them. I'm pretty sure one presentation at a city council meeting is not the only source of information you can find about this subject. It takes less than a sentence to write "which health authorities say is __________".


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2021 at 7:33 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2021 at 7:33 am

Palo Alto is becoming very reluctant to embrace technology in many ways. We still have no parking apps for finding parking, paying for parking or even electronic signage to show us where to park before we enter garages.

At times it feels that we are not in Silicon Valley and we are not in the 21st Century!


Jason Beck
Registered user
Woodside
on Nov 16, 2021 at 8:28 am
Jason Beck, Woodside
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2021 at 8:28 am

5G is highly overated & a ploy by the likes of Verizon, T-Mobile, & AT&T to sell more phones & updated cellphone contracts via the hyperbole.

What some folks don't realize is that 5G communications switch over to the more conventional 4G network when 5G coverage is either weak or sparse. And this 'switching' of networks occurs the majority of the time.

The 5G cell towers also have to be situated closer together to ensure ideal coverage and thus the rush by network providers to erect more of them.

5G will also not be practical in some of the more rural areas (including the backcountry) where the only feasible places to mount 5G wireless equipment is on trees.

The bottom line...unless one is an OCD tech nerd preoccupied with cellphones, most folks can get by via the 4G network.

And as far as cell towers in residential areas, many churches are willing to accomodate them as part of a rental/revenue-generating stream.


No heat
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Nov 16, 2021 at 10:19 am
No heat, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2021 at 10:19 am

I'm embarrassed that the reporter didn't sanity-check the health claims before repeating them. They people making health claims about low-wattage signals are relying on evidence about as thin as the anti-vaxers.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 16, 2021 at 7:44 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2021 at 7:44 pm

What I have been puzzled by is the chair of the Planning Commission, who I understand in his professional capacity has a speciality representing clients in this industry, advocating for and influencing Palo Alto's new rules.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.