Palo Alto currently has about 70 wireless facilities, from giant poles to fake trees, most of which have been built with little fanfare and scant opposition. But efforts to build new cell towers and wireless antennas are becoming more controversial as carriers zoom in on residential neighborhoods with spotty service.
Two AT&T proposals stirred intense opposition in recent months. In one case, the proposal to install a cell tower at St. Albert the Great Church in the Crescent Park neighborhood fell through after the church pulled out under pressure from residents. In another case, AT&T received the council's approval for two wireless antennas at Hotel President on University Avenue, despite heated opposition from a group of hotel residents.
AT&T has also filed applications for nine distributed antenna systems (smaller devices that can be placed on existing poles) and plans to install dozens more over the next two to three years.
The city is also currently weighing five "macrocell" applications — a monopole, a faux tree and three changes to existing facilities — according to a report from the Planning and Community Environment Department.
Palo Alto has encouraged installation of new wireless-communication facilities in commercial areas, particularly when placed on existing poles. Proposals based in residential zones are required by the city's zoning code to undergo more stringent review than those devices that would share space with other equipment.
Even so, carriers are increasingly looking to install facilities in residential neighborhoods, where the need is greatest.
"We're getting to a point now, as we've seen, that there aren't a lot of locations left to service residential areas that aren't in residential zones," Williams told the council. "That's one of the problems and concerns."
Many people in Palo Alto welcome the new facilities. Dozens of residents and business owners have emailed council members, complaining about spotty cell-phone reception and asking them to allow new wireless facilities. New infrastructure, they say, is necessary to eliminate dead zones and speed up data transfers.
"It is embarrassing (and ironic) to drop calls every time I drive past Hewlett-Packard on Page Mill Road, considering that the Silicon Valley originated there," wrote Layne Court resident Serdar Uckun. "Please support AT&T's plans to improve wireless and data coverage in Palo Alto."
Joint Venture Silicon Valley — a coalition of business, government, academic and community groups — is also lobbying for improved wireless infrastructure and arguing that the region's existing wireless infrastructure is dangerously close to reaching its capacity. Leon Beauchman, a former AT&T executive who is directing Joint Venture's Wireless Communications Initiative, said the number of cell-phone users, particularly ones with smartphones, has risen dramatically in recent years. In January, 65.8 million people in the United States had smartphones, an 8 percent increase over the previous quarter.
Dieter Preiser from the firm RCC Consultants told the council that more than 40 percent of households in the nation no longer have landlines. Furthermore, about 75 percent of 9-1-1 calls originate from wireless phones, he said. To make matters more complicated, technology is constantly changing, requiring carriers to pursue new facilities.
"It's not static," Preiser said. "Technology is evolving to meet demands of the consumer. That, of course, requires carriers to modify existing sites and add sites."
Preiser noted that one of the most critical priorities of wireless carriers these days is to improve coverage inside buildings.
The council generally agreed that new infrastructure is necessary to improve the city's wireless service — an objective that several members said should be a high priority. The key, according to Councilman Greg Scharff, is to achieve this without saddling neighborhoods with ugly structures.
"The important thing is — how do we get the best possible coverage while maintaining aesthetics?" Scharff said.
The discussion Monday night highlighted a key council objective of reaching out to residents and ensuring they understand the need for wireless facilities and the city's process for reviewing the proposals.
"Because this is such a shift for our community and we know there's more coming down the pike, we need to do what we can to avoid a large community fight every time one of these applications comes forward," Mayor Sid Espinosa said. "There was a time not so long ago where we didn't see a large protest after an application came in.
"I think we need to accept that reality and think about how we as a council lead the conversation across the community."
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