Monterey, CA wrestles with the ‘small cell’ conundrum
Tree-lined streets wind through the suburban Monterey Vista neighborhood, every other curve hosting a sign exclaiming “No cell towers.”
In Via Pariaso Park, posted flyers show the proximity of the proposed cell phone antenna sites to the five schools in the area. After two standing-room only
meetings last year where residents aired
Photo: Vern Fisher, Monterey Herald
complaints, further municipal meetings have been postponed or cancelled even as a rush of letters to local media protest the installation of these “next generation” cell phone towers.
Many Monterey residents continue to voice objection to the installation of 13 small cells — standalone individual cellular transmission sites — in the Monterey Vista neighborhood, citing reasons such as fear of radiation effects and visual blight.
But ExteNet Systems, the company that has applied to install these cell sites, says this technology is needed to improve services and allow future expansion. And the Federal Communications Commission has ruled that the health risks associated with the cell sites are well within acceptable limits.
WHY SMALL CELLS?
Traditional cell towers stand a couple hundred feet tall so their antennas are high enough to cover a broad geographical area. In recent years, however, telecom companies have relied more and more on small cells to increase signal coverage and capacity, especially where cellular signal use is highest.
“The central Monterey small cell installations are intended to offer residents utilizing Verizon Wireless service a much improved cellular service across the community,” said Larry Beer, ExteNet Systems Director of External Relations. “Cellular infrastructure is required to keep up with the increasing number of connected devices and sharing, texting and data-driven interactions of today, and preparing for the future.”
These next generation small cell antennas can be pole-like or panels and are usually placed on top of utility or light poles with equipment boxes tacked on the side or on the ground nearby. In some cases, the equipment cabinets are installed underground.
Beer says in general the antennas scheduled to be used in Monterey are cylindrical and about 24-inches tall and 14-inches round. They will be mounted either at the top of the pole or on a small arm about midway up the pole. Equipment cabinets will be mounted to the sides of the utility poles. An independent engineering firm confirmed that none of the equipment to be used emits any noise.
But residents have wondered if they are needed at all.
Florence Bent noted in a letter to the Herald that Verizon wireless seems to work just fine in Monterey.
“The impact might be minimal currently,” Beers admitted, “but it will eventually become more pronounced as residents continue the trend of increased data usage.”
Cell phones communicate with cell towers and small cells through radiofrequency waves but there’s a limit to how much data can be squeezed into these super high frequency bands before increased congestion results in lower efficiency.
Small cells are closer to the ground, and closer together. The small cell’s signal capacity is concentrated to a much smaller geographical area (10 meters to a few kilometers) to meet the demands of increasingly bandwidth-intensive mobile service like video streaming.
Having more antennas closer together allows the waves to be reused and increases efficiency. They also set the stage for the future.
AN ISSUE THROUGHOUT THE STATE
The installation of this infrastructure is happening throughout the state. Last year, the Santa Rosa City Council unanimously approved 72 small cells. Now that they are being installed, some residents have voiced disdain over the unexpected buzzing noise and refrigerator-sized transmission equipment boxes. In Palo Alto, residents are split on the 92 small cells that have been proposed to be installed in clusters in 9 to ten residential areas. While some in the heart of Silicon Valley would appreciate better cellular service, others worry about potential health impacts from the radiofrequency waves.
In Pacific Grove, the proposal to install three small cells along Central Avenue was met with some concern from residents, according to Assistant Planner Wendy Lao, but it seems to be much less than Monterey. She said that Crown Castle’s compliance with FCC standards, efforts to decrease the presence of equipment and blend into the neighborhood, as well as approved construction hours helped to address the concerns. She also noted that this neighborhood had limited cellular service, so some neighbors were actually pleased with the project.
WHO HAS THE POWER?
California cities and counties still have a say in the installation of cell phone antennas, to some extent, at least for now.
In October, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB649, the Wireless Telecommunication Facilities bill, which would have given carte blanche to cellular companies to install an estimated 50,000 small cells in residential neighborhoods across the state without getting local approval.
Similar bills have been proposed in other states in an effort to streamline the process of updating wireless equipment in anticipation of the Internet of Things (IoT) — where everything that can be wirelessly connected will be.
In 2016, the FCC approved Spectrum Frontiers, which opened up millimeter wave spectrum for developing use of extra high frequency waves that range from 30-300 GHz, for fifth-generation wireless connectivity (5G). This puts the U.S. at the forefront of 5G development and requires installation of small cells.
But local governments are still restricted in the kinds of objections they are legally allowed to make against the installation of cell phone antennas. Federal law prohibits objections on the basis of the environmental or health effects of radioactive emissions. State law makes it difficult to keep these structures from being installed in the public right-of-way.
THE QUESTION OF SAFETY
“All ExteNet wireless infrastructure installations comply and are well-under radiofrequency emissions limits for safe exposure set by the Federal Communications Commission, which were developed through guidance and research from other health-focused organizations,” Beer said. “According to the FCC, there is no scientific evidence to date that proves that wireless antennas or cellular phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other health effects, including headaches, dizziness or memory loss.”
But the FCC radiation guidelines setting safe exposure limits have not been revised for over 20 years.
As resident Robert Yoha pointed out in a letter to the Herald, “Those regulations are out-of-date, they do not incorporate today’s medical knowledge that cell phone antennas cause pain in people with amputations, muscle or nerve damage.” He is one of those people.
Charisse Carlil was concerned about the potential increased risk of wildfire from the extra equipment on the utility poles in this forested area of Monterey. Susan Nine lamented the potential loss of property values, loss of character, constant exposure to radiofrequency emissions, degradation of the natural beauty and historic quality of our city. Both expessed their concerns in letters to the Herald.
Several letters to the Herald expressed disappointment and frustration in the cancellation of the Jan. 23 meeting to address the small cell installation project. The issue has become quite the hot potato and residents are eager to voice their concerns.
“At this time, we are anticipating that the Planning Commission will review the proposed cellular facilities in late February or early March,” according to Todd Bennett, Senior Associate Planner for Monterey. “The Planning Commission meeting will be open to the public, and the city encourages public comment.”
Residents have asked for their neighbors to educate themselves, come to the meeting, and express their opinions.
“We live in a serene urban forest in this Monterey Vista neighborhood where wildlife abounds, spectacular views of the bay and mountains exist, and roads meander. We are so fortunate to live here,” wrote Jonina Myers in a letter to the Herald. “I believe this vote will be the most important decision Monterey has ever made regarding our residential neighborhoods.”
This article originally ran on montereyherald.com.