The ever-growing reliance on cell phones, wireless Internet and mobile devices has challenged cellular companies to provide for and anticipate demand, but that means more towers in open spaces, a development some people oppose.
Heidi Flato, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, said anticipating and providing coverage where needed is one of the main goals of wireless companies.
“We look at capacity first,” she said. “How the network is currently working and what is next to come. Then we look at the coverage gap. We don’t want customers to experience dropped calls.”
Verizon Wireless and dozens of other carriers — including AT&T Inc., Clearwire and Cricket Communications — have towers throughout the Bay Area, including hundreds on the Peninsula.
AT&T spokesman John Britton said people want to be connected.
“We are seeing tremendous growth,” Britton said. “People are constantly on their handheld device — it’s like an extra arm or finger. We have to keep up with that demand.”
Britton said AT&T is doubling its capacity for service on the Peninsula and throughout the Bay Area.
One of Verizon’s most recent applications is pending in South San Francisco at Foxridge Elementary School. The company wants to address the Westborough neighborhood, where Verizon says customers experience dropped calls. Residents, however, have appealed the plan’s approval by the city’s Planning Commission. The permit is expected to go before the City Council again in April.
Brian Josef — director of regulatory affairs with CTIA, the international wireless association — said as technology continues to evolve, more towers will be needed to supply the demand for wireless communication.
“We are definitely seeing an uptick nationwide,” Josef said of the number of cell towers across the country. “More and more people are cutting the cord and relying on wireless.”
To address that demand, Josef said, CTIA is asking the Federal Communications Commission to increase the airwaves wireless has access to.
Before wireless companies build a tower to address that demand, however, local cities must approve the location, height and aesthetics.
Richard Berger, director of Daly City’s economic and community development, said towers must comply with city code, which includes a location that does not detract from the neighborhood, avoids residential neighborhoods and minimizes visual impact.
“The site locations could have multiple carriers,” he said. “City code requires co-location where feasible.”
Daly City lists at least 39 cell towers within city limits.
San Mateo chief planner Ron Munekawa said wireless is a competitive industry and many carriers are trying to stay ahead of the game.
“I don’t think we’re seeing an increase in the number of towers, but don’t think we’re seeing a decrease either,” Munekawa said. “I’m not that tech-savvy, but I know Clearwire or Sprint is now trying for a 4G network and I would assume as other carriers develop that technology, we will start to get more applications to retrofit existing towers.”
There are an estimated 14 FCC-approved towers in San Mateo. Munekawa said a total number was not available, but at least eight applications for new towers are pending Planning Commission approvals, including one at Seal Point Park.
Though city officials and industry representatives have said residents are not in danger of adverse health effects because of radio waves emitted from towers, some residents are still concerned.
According to the Health Physics Society, a nonprofit organization that specializes in radiation safety, towers emit low-enough radio frequencies, so they pose little threat to those living around them.
“There is no scientific evidence to date that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other health effects,” according to a 1999 FCC report on radio frequencies released. “While some experimental data have suggested a possible link between exposure and tumor formation in animals exposed under certain specific conditions, the results have not been independently replicated.”
However, a report compiled by the Berkeley Health and Human Services Department in 2006 states long-term effects of cell phone towers cannot be ruled out.
Flato said because of these concerns expressed by the three residents in South San Francisco who oppose Verizon’s attempts to build the tower at a school site, the company is willing to compromise.
“We want to be a good neighbor,” she said. “We operate well below the guidelines set forth by the federal government, but we understand concerns.”
Mike Allen, a South City resident opposing Verizon’s tower, said Verizon had an idea of what it wanted the tower to look like, and has done little to compromise. The cell company reportedly lowered the height to 55 feet.
“There needs to be better public policy,” he said. “It’s just going to be an explosion of these things. If they are allowed to do [it] in this manner,” South City is in trouble.
Wireless strongholds bring schools revenue
The Sequoia Union High School District should receive nearly $1 million over the next 25 years for granting cellular companies permission to use a portion of at least three district campuses to build cell phone towers.
Jim Lianides, assistant superintendent with Sequoia Union, said the towers are far enough away from the school building that they should not cause any type of harm that opponents often point to when a cellular company looks to build a tower. The extra money, though, will help save some programs or positions, he said.
“In these tight economic times, it certainly is a source of revenue,” he said.
Sequoia Union has not reached a budget reduction target for the 2010-11 school year, according to officials. The district operates on a $102 million budget.
Sequoia Union is one of many school districts throughout San Mateo County that allow cell phone companies to build a cell tower roughly 60 feet high in order to cover wireless company service gaps.
The San Mateo Union High School District and the San Carlos School District have approved lease agreements in recent months. The San Francisco Unified School District has also discussed cell phone towers on school buildings.
California schools are facing a $2.2 billion deficit. This month, thousands of teachers will be laid off as cuts to each district’s budget run deeper and deeper.
Ron Little, associate superintendent of business services with South San Francisco Unified School District, said the amount the district would receive from Verizon if a tower was built at its vacated school site was still in negotiations.
The application, though, lists a lease agreement between the school district and the wireless phone company for roughly $3,000 each month for the next five years.
South City announced 50 layoffs and a budget reduction of $4.75 million out of its $75 million general fund.
Residents surrounding South City’s Foxridge Elementary School have objected to the proposed tower’s location and height.
— Andrea Koskey
How safe is exposure?
The Federal Communications Commission offers advice on the possible danger from various transmitters:
Point-to-point microwave antennas (rectangular antennas used to broadcast TV stations): Significant exposures from these antennas could only occur in the unlikely event that an individual were to stand directly in front of and very close to an antenna for a period of time.
Mobile phone and cellular towers: Because the signal from a cellular tower or base station antenna is directed toward the horizon, normal ground-level exposure is much less than exposure if one were very close to the antenna.
Vehicle-mounted antennas: Properly installed, vehicle-mounted, personal wireless transceivers using up to 3 watts of power result in maximum exposure levels in or near the vehicle that are well below the FCC’s safety limits.
Cell phones: There is no proof that cellular telephones can be harmful, but if individuals remain concerned several precautionary actions could be taken, such as a greater separation between you and the device. Using a corded headset is one example.
Source: Federal Communications Commission
Cell phone companies are putting up more towers to erase gaps in coverage.
Sources: Daly City, Redwood City, San Mateo, South San Francisco