Community meets about proposal for improved cellular reception

Noa Braun, Author

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Palo Alto residents are expressing mixed reactions to AT&T’s proposal that would install 20 Distributed Antenna Systems to increase ceullular reception throughout the city.

At a meeting at the Lucie Stern Community Center on Oct.11, the representative who asked to remain anonymous, explained to residents that the devices would assist with the enhancement of cellular coverage in Palo Alto, and are more effective than the current macro site alternatives.

“A Distributed Antenna System, or DAS, is a network of smaller, spatially separated antenna nodes connected to the communications network,” an AT&T representative said.  “A DAS would split the transmitted signal among several smaller antennas to provide coverage and reliability over the same area as a single cell tower antenna. DAS networks are effective in areas where, for a variety of reasons, it is not optimal to build a traditional macro sites.”

The DAS would help increase cellular reception in the Palo Alto area, according to the representative.

“In some areas they [the DAS] will fill a coverage gap where people can’t get cellular service,” the representative said. “In other places there is a capacity gap, and in those cases there are too may people trying to get on the network. So, the DAS will be able to better the coverage in these areas.”

Another AT&T representative, who asked to remain anonymous, further explained that the systems are being put in place due to an increased demand for better coverage.

“The reason that AT&T is planning to put these sights in the neighborhood is that residents are demanding it,” the representative said. “There has been a huge increase in traffic on our network and Palo Alto is known as one of the areas in the country with the highest percentage of smart phone users. So, we’re not just randomly deciding to put these sights up, it’s in response to residents’ complaints.”

After receiving notices of the proposal, many residents came to the meeting hall to voice their concerns and receive further information about the DAS.

“I feel like we are being misled by AT&T and by the City of Palo Alto,” a Palo Alto resident who wished to stay anonymous said. “We were supposed to be provided with different design options, that was something that was made clear at the last Architectural Review Board meeting on Aug. 4 and that was stipulated by the Architectural Review Board to AT&T, that this was going to be necessary for them to move forward with the process. I don’t see this situation as improving. The guidelines haven’t been made clear, which was something else that was mentioned by the ARB. It seems like the clock is ticking but, we are being ignored.”

The residents expressed concerns about aesthetics of the DAS and a decrease in property values that would be caused by the DAS.

“There are fans that cool the amplifiers and apparently those make noise,” the Palo Alto resident said. “I’ve also been waiting for a demonstration under realistic conditions so that we can understand what the device would sound like. The other thing that we understood is that they threatened our property value due to the aesthetic aspect, as well as the noise. Certainly if someone is looking to buy a home and they have one of these devices in front of their home, it’s not something that would attract most people; it may even be a deal breaker.”

Eric LoVecchio, an independent real estate agent and property value consultant hired by AT&T to clarify the affects of the DAS on property values, addressed these concerns.

“A nationwide study was done which  showed that communities that have broadband infrastructure have higher property values than communities who don’t,” Lovecchio said. “I would say that on a smaller perspective, people may not think that utility poles are the best looking thing but, they’re all over the place, everyone is used to them and they are not pulling your property values down, so you would assume that neither would the DAS.”

Citizens also voiced concerns about health risks involving the emission of radiation from the DAS.

“We value our education, we value our kids and we’re well informed,” a Palo Alto resident said. “We are also concerned about what will happen 20 years down the road, and whether it will be another issue like smoking, in which we will realize the consequences too late.”

Yet, Lynn Bruno, an AT&T hired consulting engineer at Hammett and Edison Inc., tried to console residents by informing them of studies which prove that DAS will not emit harmful radiation.

“When you get into the very short wavelengths, it’s called ionizing radiation because the wavelengths are so short they can penetrate and cell and break off an electron and cause lasting damage,” Bruno said. “But, the part of the spectrum that we’re operating in does not cause any lasting damage. It’s been studied for about 60 years and there have never been any studies that have shown any health effects at these exposure levels. In the case of DAS, the emissions are thousands of times below the maximum standard.”

AT&T representatives also informed the residents of the public safety benefits that the DAS will reap upon the members of the Palo Alto community.

“I’d like to remind them that a very real public safety concern is not being able to get access to 9-1-1 on your wireless phone in an emergency,” an AT&T representative said. “If there’s an earthquake or a car accident or anything else happens and you use your wireless phone and connect to our DAS network. The DAS network has 9-1-1 pinpointing that will allow emergency personnel to know exactly where you are and be able to find you much more easily.”