Community leaders lobby for improved cell phone coverage in Silicon Valley

A clock tower in Belmont houses antennas. The practice of disguising antennas is intended to reduce their visual impact on neighborhoods. (Photo courtesy of Randy Schwabacher)

Phones, smartphones, tablet computers — a new wave of high-tech wireless devices — have increased demand for cellular coverage across the United States. So it’s ironic that Silicon Valley – the birthplace of so many of these devices — is where you’ll find some of the nation’s spottiest service.

Randall Schwabacher, a cellular industry contractor currently working for T-Mobile, said the region’s varied topography was partly to blame. But he added that cellular networks are slow to grow here, in the digital Mecca of the Bay Area, primarily because of local governments’ complicated application requirements and review processes, as well as numerous drawn-out public appeals.

That’s a situation Schwabacher intends to change. He volunteers with Joint Venture – Silicon Valley Networks, a group of business professionals, local government leaders and academics who advocate for action on issues ranging from disaster preparedness to workforce development.

Schwabacher is a steering committee member for the group’s Wireless Communications Initiative, an effort through which cellular industry representatives and public officials are trying to improve the region’s cellular service. A big part of that push is focused on making it easier for cell companies to install antennas in the South Bay, either on new poles or on existing buildings and facilities such as water tanks and electrical towers. Schwabacher, who represents the industry’s perspective, says without faster approvals, Silicon Valley will suffer economically.

“Wireless is an infrastructure,” he said. “It’s the same as when the government decided the interstate highway system was integral to the economy.”

Cellular companies are now rolling out new 4G network infrastructure and working to close gaps in residential coverage throughout the South Bay. Schwabacher complains that cities’ requirements are often arduous, even capricious.

“We have just over 100 jurisdictions in the Bay Area, and each has their own process,” he said. “In Indiana, if you want to put up a 300-foot latticed tower, you walk in, ask for a zoning permit with plans, and pay a fee.”

“In the Bay Area, it takes months.”

In many instances, protests by nearby residents complicate the review process. Early on, cellular companies in the Bay Area installed towers and antennas near roads and commercial districts, but as more people have taken to using cellular devices at home, demand for service in residential areas has increased. But while many people express frustration with poor reception, Schwabacher said companies were routinely pilloried for proposing towers near homes,

Residents, maybe some of the same people who grumble about poor service, also complain about the impact cell towers have on the look of the neighborhood, property values and potential health effects.

Schwabacher offered an example: an installation in Portola Valley that T-Mobile had proposed near a middle school. After community protest, the prospective facility was moved to a water tank near some homes.

The water tank “is already a public use,” he said. “T-Mobile was willing to do a fake-tree style pole “… But then “again, protests, appeals – it went to the city council. After months and tens of thousands of dollars in fees, the town council reluctantly approved it.”  Even then, however, it remained “subject to further review,” Schwabacher added.

Slow review processes are a longstanding issue in the Bay Area and have garnered complaints from residential and commercial developers as well as cellular companies. Regarding the expansion of cellular towers and other infrastructure, representatives  of a number of South Bay cities gave different accounts of their approval processes, sometimes defending extensive review. They also said projects near homes typically required more consideration and opportunities for public input.

Randy Schwabacher is a steering committee member with Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network's Wireless Communications Initiative, which is trying to make it easier for cell companies to install antennas in the Silicon Valley area. (Photo: Paul Jones)

Joseph Horwedel, director of planning for the City of San Jose, said San Jose tried to fast-track certain cellular projects, provided applicants gave what the city deems necessary information up-front.

“Our goal is that if people do antennas the right way, to get those approved administratively,” without a public process, Horwedel said.

However, Horwedel acknowledged that residential installations can take months to approve, and more controversial projects appealed by residents can drag on for as long as a year. By contrast, Sailesh Mehra with the Redwood City planning Department, said projects in his city were sometimes approved within as little as six to eight weeks. However, most of Redwood City’s applications for new antennas are in commercial areas, which draw less public ire.

Damon DiDonato, senior planner with the City of Belmont, said his city’s approval process sometimes took as long as six months but asserted that the extensive review was necessary to do a good job.

“We have to look at things quite closely,” he said. DiDonato added that most jurisdictions require a study of antennas’ radio frequency emissions to make sure they are in compliance with Federal Communications Commission safety standards, and that cell companies provide “a coverage map to show how this will meet their needs as a provider.”

For residential installations, many cities also encourage – and sometimes require – cell companies to arrange neighborhood meetings with nearby homeowners.

However, DiDonato said the extensive process is often lengthened by cellular providers that propose projects without having adequately prepared their materials to meet the city’s standards.

“With a lot of proposed cell sites, we don’t get completed applications.” DiDonato said. “So we request more information, and it takes a long time for them to respond.”

Due to enormous geography they cover, cell-service providers have to rely on local contractors to maintain and expand their networks. Those contractors are often not well acquainted with the different processes of the Bay Area’s numerous cities. And cities trying to work with cellular companies often have a hard time trying to coordinate with multiple, sometimes hard-to-reach contractors involved in a project.

Schwabacher advocates changes to address these problems, including devising a common application and review process for cities throughout the region. Leon Beauchman, a former AT&T representative who recently resigned his position to head up the wireless initiative for Silicon Valley Networks, said a more standardized process could help cellular companies anticipate what data to provide when applying for new projects across multiple South Bay jurisdictions.

“We’d like to create more consistencies between jurisdictions so we know” the application processes  “will be fairly consistent with the city next door,” he said.

The initiative has so far focused on working with city leaders in San Jose and Palo Alto. Meetings have also been held with other cities’ leaders. Schwabacher, a well-connected veteran of the cellular industry since the ‘90s, persuaded the City of San Carlos to adopt some of his suggestions as part of a revised telecommunications ordinance being considered by the city, according to Assistant City Manager Brian Moura. (Moura also participates in Joint Venture’s Wireless Communications Initiative representing cities’ perspective.)

But DiDonato, the Belmont official, said establishing a semi-uniform set of telecommunications rules for cities may prove too challenging to work.

“Each city has its own issues,” he said. “Belmont’s a very hilly region. Other cities are flat. They may have more commercial space. I think it’d be hard to get a uniform set of standards when the cities vary as much as they do.”

And Palo Alto Planning Department Director Curtis Williams said his city wasn’t planning to update its ordinance, last changed five years ago.

“We’re satisfied with how it is now,” Williams said “It seems like it’s been working pretty well.”

Furthermore, despite Schwabacher’s desire to speed up approvals, there’s an unresolved issue that guarantees some projects will always be controversial in the environmentally conscious Bay Area. Ironically, the reason members of the public often dig in their heels to oppose new antennas is the very one cities are least able to address –fears over the possible health effects of towers.

Resident’s fears about radio-frequency exposure are the principle reason for appeals, Schwabacher said, despite the cellular industry’s legal obligation to follow government regulations designed to protect people’s health and safety.

“The government has created safety standards for a worst-case scenario — highest power, longest exposure, most unlikely convergence of events —   and most sites are hundreds of times below that,” Schwabacher said.

Efforts by cellular companies to convince people that nearby towers are safe sometimes involve elaborate demonstrations.

“One woman claimed her kids were dyslexic because of the phone tower, and we found the cordless phone in her house” was putting out “a massively more powerful signal than any from the street,” Schwabacher said.

Despite cellular providers’ efforts to defuse fears, complaints continue. Stephen and Tru Love are Palo Alto residents leading a campaign against a controversial proposed tower at 1095 Channing Avenue. It would be installed on top of a

church adjacent to their home. Stephen Love said the couple intended to appeal the project “on any grounds that we can.” The Loves said their principle concern is the effect of cellular frequencies on the neighborhood and the young occupants of the school adjacent to the church.

“Study after study says the science around this is bad,” Stephen Love said. “The science hasn’t kept up with the technology.”

That science regarding radio frequency exposure remains a controversial topic. Studies both back Schwabacher’s claims, while reserving some basis for the Loves’ fears.

“While some scientific studies suggest that RF energy may be in some way connected to certain types of cancer, most

do not,” said Robert Weller, technical analysis branch chief with the Federal Communications Commission. “And the consensus of scientists having appropriate expertise to review and interpret those data is that the weight of evidence is insufficient to justify ‘tightening’ the exposure standards.”

Nonetheless, residents such as the Loves worry that long-term effects related to exposure will surface in the future. They note that unlike phones and computer monitors, the radio frequencies put out by towers are constantly on, 24/7. However, as established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, cities are unable to restrict cellular providers from installing antennas on the basis of health concerns if they conform to federal safety standards.

Schwabacher said he suspects many appeals his industry regularly confronts regarding about towers’ aesthetic issues are really motivated by neighbors’ concerns about health effects. Curtis Williams with Palo Alto said that explanation made sense to him as well.

“If you’re concerned about something, you’re going to find a way to try to stop it, and if aesthetics are the only place the city has authority, you’re going to look in that area and find something you can use,” he said.

Schwabacher is undeterred, however. With all the reception problems still plaguing the area, he says he’ll continue advocating for a faster approval process.

“I believe that any cell site that has an independent party test it to make it safe and meets federal/state guidelines, and is not visible, should be approved, no matter where it is.”

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