The global pandemic has taught us hard lessons about our strengths and shortcomings as a society. It has also transformed our basic patterns: we moved to remote work, distance learning and distributed workforces — trends which most likely won't be reversed. One very important lesson, therefore, has been the critical the importance of connectivity.
Cellular broadband was a lifeline during quarantine, preserving our connections with loved ones, enabling commerce and, perhaps most importantly, allowing learning to continue. Students abruptly shifted to distance-learning in March 2020, but without adequate coverage in residential neighborhoods this would not have been possible. For students whose wired broadband was either inadequate, expensive or nonexistent, school districts provided 4G hot spots. Of the 16,000 connections created by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, 14,200 came with via 4G hot spots. But these hot spots are useless if there's no wireless coverage.
Our state and national leaders understand robust connectivity is critical to our country's future growth and that connectivity will enable and improve countless new technologies and services — spurring economic growth and prosperity. The infrastructure plan from President Joe Biden's administration is proposing $65 billion for broadband, and Gov. Gavin Newsom included $9 billion for broadband in his proposed budget.
Unfortunately, Palo Alto has adopted fairly onerous standards for small wireless facilities — also known as small cells — effectively halting the expansion of modern communications infrastructure in our city.
Current city rules have the effect of prohibiting wireless infrastructure along 73% of the city's streets. Rather than encouraging improved infrastructure, the city's rules seem designed to make building it as difficult as possible. In fact, not a single small wireless facility was approved in Palo Alto during the pandemic.
Cellular communication is increasingly the technology of choice for connectivity. Over 60% of households in the western United States are wireless-only, as people increasingly shift from wired to mobile telephones. Eighty percent of calls to emergency 911 services are made from cellular phones. Clearly, robust in-home cellular coverage is critical for economic equality and public safety.
Next-generation wireless supports more than just faster smartphones. It will enable Palo Alto homes and small businesses access to gigabit-class internet access — delivering an affordable alternative to cable, DSL and fiber optic broadband.
Understandably, many objections to small wireless facilities center on fears over electromagnetic health effects, adverse impacts to residential property valuations, or aesthetics. But in truth those concerns have been systematically addressed: thousands of peer-reviewed studies on EMF (electromagnetic fields) health effects found no evidence of harm when wireless facilities operate within Federal Communications Commission guidelines — as they must do by law. Objective studies on property valuations have found no economic impacts.
As a Palo Alto homeowner I share peoples' legitimate concerns about aesthetics. Fortunately, (and by law), local governments are responsible for defining reasonable aesthetic requirements. I'm satisfied that Palo Alto is applying shrouding principles in a manner that still allows for strong signals. In this, it's good to see us learn from cities like San Diego, San Jose and Fremont, all of whom maintain helpful (and detailed) facilities guidelines for small cell infrastructure.
Palo Alto's policies need to reflect current realities and set reasonable siting standards that contribute to, not impede, our access to information. Our city — the birthplace of so many notable technology ventures — may be ceding an outsized voice to a vociferous minority, at the expense of progress.
In actuality we're not looking at a Solomonic choice here. Palo Alto can deploy the best technology, allow science to play its central role, all while honoring the importance of aesthetics. I hope we'll keep sight of the big picture and craft policies enabling this critical infrastructure.