Communication breakdown between wireless firms, residents

The battle between wireless companies trying to expand coverage and neighbors trying to prevent towers and antennas in their backyards might amplify as companies and customers clamor for larger networks.

For years, the cell phone industry has pushed for wider capacity on radio frequency waves, known as spectrum, in order to provide better, smoother service. Congress is discussing a proposal that would release more spectrum to cell phone companies.

John Walls, a spokesman for the CTIA-The Wireless Association, said the proposed increase to release 800 megahertz of spectrum is not enough for the growing demand and use of cell phones, but it is a start.

“Wireless traffic in North America increased by 50 percent in a six-month span,” Walls said. “The demand is incredible. In order to meet the demand, coverage needs to be improved.”

Companies have to build infrastructure to keep up with demand — a fight that seems ever-present in neighborhoods.

“They can’t have it both ways,” Walls said. “The equipment is necessary to make all of this happen.”

In San Francisco, T-Mobile is trying to increase its coverage in North Beach. The company has applied for three antennas in the form of faux vents to be placed atop residential buildings.

Residents, however, were concerned about the look, height and location of the antennas. As a result, T-Mobile agreed to move the locations farther from street view and camouflage the antennas, according to company spokesman Rod De La Rosa. Those applications are expected to be voted on next month.

“We wanted it to blend in more and be less noticeable,” De La Rosa said of the North Beach applications.

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Heidi Flato agreed, saying the battle between ensuring increased coverage and finding locations that please residents is a constant challenge.

“A lot of people want the coverage, but they don’t want the cell site,” Flato said. “We need to build the infrastructure to get the service.”

She encouraged those most concerned to do research on health risks and educate themselves on the radiation and hazards.

“Wireless is not magic,” Flato said. “It’s science and technology. The more people rely on cell phones, the more capacity needed.”

According to the American Cancer Association, there is very little evidence to support the notion that exposure to cell phone towers causes cancer.

However, the Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit aimed at educating people about environmental health risks, said some studies are biased because they are funded by wireless companies. The organization said many studies do not look at the effects of day-to-day use of cell phone devices and radiation so close to the brain.

In South San Francisco, Verizon recently withdrew an application after neighborhood opposition to the location of a cell tower — 55 feet high, less than 500 yards away from homes and on the property of a community day school — along with the overall the look.

Flato said she did not know if the company would resubmit an application, but she said Verizon continues to expand its network to stay ahead of demand.

Five months after Verizon withdrew its application, new guidelines for wireless towers were adopted in South City, and they include specific requirements for the location, size and look of new towers.

Unlike the case with San Francisco, many of the applications that pass through San Mateo County go unchallenged, according to Matt Seubert, senior planner for the county Planning and Building Department.

“Really, it depends where it is,” Seubert said. “In some dense neighborhoods like North Fair Oaks [unincorporated Redwood City], it’s not controversial. But in more suburban areas like Palomar Park [near San Carlos], they don’t want it.”

Looks matter for cell towers

The controversy about where a cell phone tower can be placed will take a back seat to a new focus: aesthetics.

What the tower looks like — if a community does not oppose its very presence — can kill an application for a tower anywhere in San Francisco under new legislation sponsored by Supervisor John Avalos that passed Tuesday.

The legislation imposes restrictions for antennas on public rights of way, such as utility poles and commercial buildings. And it requires cell phone companies to put out notices to residents within 150 feet of a tower location.

According to Frances Hsieh, an aide to Avalos, there is no requirement to let the community know an antenna will be put up nearby.

“Sometimes a person will leave for work and come back and looking out their front window, they see this big gray box staring at them,” Hsieh said. “They don’t know what it is, what it does or what effects it could have.”

Hsieh said the legislation would address those problems by requiring some sort of notification. There are hundreds of towers and antennas already in The City.

Though the legislation lays out requirements for using public property — including how to mask an antenna with a tree or have the box facing the street rather than a house — many wireless companies already try to blend equipment with urban areas.

“We do want to be a good neighbor,” Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said. “Depending on the location, we may design camouflage cell sites such as pine trees or a chimney, or in some cases we may find it best to put in a standard pole.”

Opening up wavelengths

Oct. 1, 2010: 10-year plan to release spectrum published
Sept. 11, 2011: High-priority bands discussed by National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Oct. 1, 2012: Federal agencies (NTIA, FCC) report on high-priority bands
2013: FCC issues authorization for wireless companies to use new spectrum bands via auction
Jan. 14, 2014: FCC discusses potentially releasing more bands, if needed

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

Delivering coverage

200-300: Megahertz of spectrum available now
500: Megahertz of spectrum proposed to be released by FCC for wireless use
10: Years in plan to release spectrum
4: Major wireless carriers

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

Planning for the future

U.S. Department of Commerce 10-year plan to make available 500 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband:

Proposed legislation would:
– Mask antennas or boxes, including trees
– Limit location of boxes
– Regulate size of box
– Require notices to neighbors within 150 feet

Source: Supervisor John Avalos’ office

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