Letter to the Editor: Blame the Handset and Not the Cell Tower

If you're concerned about the health effects of cellular service, reader Bryce Nesbitt thinks you should consider demanding more towers in Kensington, not less.

The 1996 Federal telecommunications act states clearly that:

“No State or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions...

Thus the local government can't consider health effects when considering a cellular tower. This is hardly comforting. We've all read about health effects of cellular service, and questions about health are definitely legitimate. However it is important to make a distinction between cellular handsets and cellular towers.

Cellular handsets are constantly transmitting signals, even when nobody is talking. The phones search for and communicate with the nearest towers. Now imagine a phone located in the center of Kensington, perhaps at the community center. Signals from this phone will ripple out like waves in water, washing over the entire town to reach relatively distant towers (probably at Solano Avenue and the top of Moeser Lane).

Now what if you wanted to lower the intensity of cellular radio signals in town? You could outlaw cell phones, outlaw mobile data plans or, surprisingly, add more towers. Each handset will send out a weaker signal, as phones are designed to minimize both battery usage and interference with far away towers. 

Radio signals, and any potential health effects, drop off as the square of the distance. Cut the tower distance in half and the radio intensity drops to one-fourth the strength. So if you're concerned about health effects of cellular service, consider demanding more towers, not less. Spread those towers through the area, sharing the burden of visual blight.

Cellular service may have health effects, but the ironic effect of opposition to tower siting is to increase total radio emissions. As the American Cancer Society writes on cancer.org: "The amount of exposure from living near a cell phone tower is typically many times lower than the exposure from using a cell phone." Thus the strongest exposure you're likely to experience is when a phone is near your head, in an area with distant towers like Kensington.

The Kensington Municipal Advisory Council considers a proposal for nine AT&T "micro" towers on Tuesday, Feb 26.


Bryce Nesbitt's background includes work on a very early "car phone" (the predecessor to cellular phones).  He does not work for or have financial interest in any current cellular product or company.  He is a former resident of 99 Ardmore Road in Kensington, and presently wishes for less patchy AT&T cellular service near his home in Berkeley. Bryce recommends forcing cellular companies to share towers, to minimize visual blight and to reduce the proliferation of fake cell phone trees.

Rodney Paul February 22, 2013 at 05:19 PM
Thank you for this insightful perspective, Bryce.
Bryce Nesbitt March 16, 2013 at 05:40 AM
See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributed_antenna_system
Chris J April 06, 2013 at 05:26 PM
An interesting perspective. It does raise in my head, however, the question of that old chestnut about cell phone radiation causing cancer. I don't disagree that its possible but at the same time, I really am not grounded enough in medical science to discern if it is a real threat or not. As I hardly seem to use my phone for speaking in any case, mostly texting of looking up data, locations, etc., it may be a moot point in my circumstance. No one sees to be able to agree that holding a cell phone to your head is like smoking cigarettes.
Catherine Krueger April 07, 2013 at 12:13 PM
Levels of meningiomas are on the rise and I am one of them yet not alone apparently. Everyone is telling me their stories but definitely linked to exposure to radiation...I live with my phone...though I never dug the hands free headset for fear of brain tumor....haha still got it!
Bryce Nesbitt January 29, 2014 at 06:35 PM
Note: data and voice use the same radio. WiFi signals are weaker however. And do you have a cordless phone? Radio waves again.


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