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.