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AT&T Cell Towers Proposal: Want to Win? Palo Alto Lost

Reader Philip Zimmerman shares material the cell towers and the public meeting which will be held on this issue at a KMAC meeting, Feb. 26, 7 p.m. at the Community Center.

By Philip Zimmerman, Kensington resident

The FCC has reserved for itself alone all considerations of the effects on health of RF (radio frequency) radiation. Local officials may not take into account health concerns related to cell equipment permit applications.

If you mention your health concerns regarding AT&T’s plans in public meetings, you are wasting valuable time! Please do not. Take it up with the FCC.

Here is the link to the page containing the downloadable/viewable PDFs of AT&T’s plans and permit applications:
http://www.cocobos.org/DocumentCenter/Index/2660 (scroll down to KMAC)

The following addresses are adjacent to phone poles AT&T wishes to add its equipment on top of: 8 Highland Blvd., 98 Rincon Rd., 121 Windsor Ave., 8 Sunset Dr., 248 Grizzly Peak Blvd., 110 Ardmore Rd.

If you read the PDF attached (page 5), you will discover that Palo Alto will soon get 75 of its utility poles topped with nine-foot extensions with cans on top.

Here is the link to a web site I found while Googling around on the subject of Distributed Antenna Systems: http://planwireless.com/index.htm

It belongs to a wireless planning company, Kreines & Kreines in Tiburon, and contains great information like:

  1. We, the consumers and participants in this debate over AT&T's application must have a knowledgeable command of the legislatively dictated schedule for approval, etc. of this application. 60 days is mentioned prominently. If this schedule is violated by delay, except in certain circumstances, the application becomes approved by default.
  2. The various Telecommunications Acts favor more communications equipment; generally, the more the better.
  3. A Wireless Master Plan is helpful. (Since Kensington has land use restrictions that do not apply to the rest of the County’s unincorporated areas, could we not have our own set of criteria for cell facilities? El Cerrito held up T-Mobile’s application for a tower for many months while it updated its own master plan. According to planwireless.com, it must be called a “Personal Wireless Service Facility Ordinance”)

Personally, I am not particularly opposed to a cell phone service provider building a Distributed Antenna System in Kensington, as long as it addresses our legitimate concerns.

These systems can be designed to be unobtrusive. To demonstrate this, I include numerous photos below. Any one of these would be less offensive than the extensions AT&T proposes to place on some of our utility poles.

Please note the diminutive scale of the hardware, and its placement on the
poles at fairly low elevations. Note, too, that an antenna generally requires a transmitter quite close by to power it.

The first picture (from the group of photos attached), of an installation near UCLA, proves that the transmitter need not be on the pole or even in a box beside the street. The transmitter can be a source of more RF radiation to the immediate area than the antenna. Rather than have them in our way, let’s require AT&T to put its transmitters underground.

One may view other local governments’ versions of “Personal Wireless Service Facilities” Ordinances by Googling California Personal Wireless Service Facilities Ordinance.

We need not pay and sweat to re-invent the wheel; merely choose wisely, and talk to the owners to see how theirs worked.

Any of these installations would seem preferable to those we will get if we cannot get the design changed. Indeed, the last picture illustrates that AT&T is already familiar with how to build less noticeable installations on utility poles.

Why do they want to build ours so high? The answer is in the nature of the radio signals they must employ. The higher the antennas, the less obstructions and undulations in the topography obscure the antennas from a greater number of
potential customers per antenna. But they are ugly.

Few high antennas in Kensington will mean that their reach will be farther and their transmitting power higher than if we contractually, through the use permit, specify that they transmit at the lowest level of power possible, while still remaining effective.

Cell phone customers voice two main complaints about their service: dropped calls, and dead areas of no reception. We have a perhaps one-time opportunity to insure that AT&T designs its new system to address these issues.

Related to both issues is the notion that all Kensington residents live here and travel our streets and have to look at whatever system is installed, but that by no means does AT&T wish to be obligated to serve us all.

It would rather cherry-pick the locations where the fewest antennas will maximize its customer numbers, and abandon to dead areas those areas which are not profitable to serve because of topography or sparse population. Dead areas have no cell antenna that serves them.

Dropped calls result from a given antenna being overloaded with volume, and shedding calls until it has a manageable number.

See what winning might look like in the second photo attached.

Note that the cell antenna on a light pole in New York's Central Park is quite small. Central Park is larger than Kensington.

Note also the degree of involvement of New Yorkers, from the mayor on down, in that project. I'll bet there are no dead spots in the park. Bloomberg strikes me as the sort of person who gets what he wants, and what he wants is the best.

That system might be the sort that has only antennas on poles, connected by fiber optics, mentioned in the planwireless.com site. Because the roads must be dug up, it says, for the fiber optic cables, the system must be quite
expensive, perhaps too expensive for AT&T’s budget.

Were we to insist on a system as unobtrusive appearing above ground as Central Park’s, we might end by being left alone.

If we require that AT&T act like a utility (isn’t it one?) and provide cell coverage to all of Kensington, no exceptions, no dead areas, and that it use lower less ugly antennas than it was planning to, it would put more of them in.

They could have lower power because they would be closer to each other, and because their use permit required that they had to use the lowest power that would work. More antennas would mean less dropping of calls, because there would be more of them to share the load.

Are we going to grant AT&T an unregulated monopoly? There is a better approach. We must require that the company share its physical facilities that it would build here with its competitors—how many I do not know—but I am not a trusting soul, and I would require that AT&T have contracts up front with the number of them you think best as a condition of its use permit and operating permit becoming and remaining valid. Otherwise, it will build its system, and exclude competition by setting the price of sharing it too high for there to be any takers. This is discussed on the web.

Verbal understandings relative to real estate contracts have no standing before the law. Get the specifications the contractor is to build to into the drawings and make them conditions of the use permit. Make the use permit suspendable if AT&T violates its terms.

Or perhaps there is an ongoing operating agreement with the County that specifies the terms under which the cell installations are to be managed. Is the installation to have a certain look? Exactly what look? An artist’s rendition may not be a firm enough understanding.

Is there a photo in a manufacturer’s catalogue of what you expect that can be included by reference into the drawings and agreement? Why not include everything relevant into every relevant document by reference?

A permit should include these conditions:

  1. No areas of free public parking will be reduced as a result of cell installations in Kensington.
  2. The visual screening effect of trees and other foliage will take precedence over any considerations of their possible interference with communications. Trees and other foliage are not to be cut or removed to reduce interference. (Cell tower leases on private land often allow the operator to sue a landowner if he declines to cut his own trees on the demand of the operator)
  3.  Engine driven generators are prohibited at the site after the final building inspection. (T-Mobile claimed they use batteries for backup power. The El Cerrito Design Review Board hearing on their cell tower application drew a comment from a neighbor to another company’s cell tower which had been powered for a year and a half with a diesel generator which ran 24/7.)
  4. Equipment will be shared with other wireless providers.
  5. All of Kensington will be served.
  6.  Equipment will be as visually unobtrusive as possible, with standards set forth, not to be exceeded, including maximum height above ground.

Considering that the bureaucrats in Martinez do not continue to hold their jobs at our pleasure, I don't trust them much to further our concerns. We must be our own advocates if we are to get the best deal possible. If AT&T perseveres, it will prevail, eventually. All we can do is massage the design in the direction we would prefer.

The photos above represent examples of what we can accomplish. We cannot tell them to go away, though we could, presumably, make the project uneconomical for them to pursue.

If we are not energetic, we could suffer the fate of Palo Alto, where AT&T has gotten recent permission to construct nine-foot extensions with cans on top of about 75 phone poles.

What to do? Inform yourself. Look at the plans. Read the planwireless.com website.

Spread the word to all the people you know in Kensington to get involved. Forward this document to them. Add your own thoughts.

*The images are from Google Images from searching Distributed Antenna Systems.

Bill Halpin February 26, 2013 at 10:08 PM
Thank you Philip Zimmerman! You should help us Kensington folks make the best of all of this. Is it possible to have as many as possible of the ATT "cans" placed atop public buildings (Library, Hillside School, Fire/Police Center, Youth Hut, etc. so that the rental revenue goes back into our community rather than to PG&E, etc.? Bill Halpin
Bryce Nesbitt February 27, 2013 at 08:39 AM
Attention to detail is important when dealing with tower and cell carriers who are only out to make a buck. But hopefully the pursuit of details is constructive, not just a screen for opposing towers. Let's find a way to get the towers the area needs in place and out of the way (See http://elcerrito.patch.com/articles/letter-to-the-editor-blame-the-handset-and-not-the-cell-tower ). Public sites should generate income to the community. I favor tower sites in the park and at the filter plant.
Mike Duigou February 27, 2013 at 06:44 PM
Just put on your tinfoil hat, you'll be fine.
Tom Nixon February 28, 2013 at 10:48 PM
I hope all those who influenced El Cerrito's dumb decision to deny the cell tower at Camp Herms read this. It seems that now the health risk is from the phone and not the tower. So put as many towers out there as possible just as long as they look good and don't interfere with the view of what - the utility poles? What's next? Maybe even Berkeley might wake up.

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