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Santa Rosa, CA puts Verizon wireless network upgrade on hold amid blowback from residents

Santa Rosa put a Verizon wireless network upgrade on hold Tuesday after residents raised questions in the minds of City Council members about the wisdom of allowing new telecommunications gear on light and power poles in neighborhoods.

Dozens of critics of Verizon’s “small cell” technology, which aims to boost network reliability and speed, urged council members to dial back a 2017 agreement with the city allowing the installation of 72 such antennas around the Santa Rosa. They cited health, safety and aesthetic concerns among their reasons for opposing the upgrades.

“I think it is time to push the pause button on this installation in our neighborhoods,” said John Cushman, a resident of Hidden Valley. “This project has been rushed and the only urgency I can see is financial.”

The windfall would appear to be Verizon’s as it seeks to boost its customer base in a highly competitive wireless telephone and data market. The city earns only $350 per installation on its poles, a figure some in the audience said is too low.

Santa Rosa changed its council policy last February to make smaller wireless antenna projects easier to install on city properties. Verizon, citing poor network performance, began attaching the new antennas throughout the city earlier this year. It was underway with work on 15 locations before a self-imposed pause late last month.

The company got plenty of static from residents who worried about the health effects from radio frequency radiation and visuals of unsightly equipment on power poles.

The city required the company to hold a series of meetings to help address residents’ concerns, the first two of which took place last week. But by the council’s study session Tuesday, Verizon’s critics were emboldened, and council members were decidedly uncomfortable.

“I am supportive of putting the brakes on this,” Councilman Tom Schwedhelm said. “I’m not convinced that we’ve done everything that we can so we can look anyone in the face and say ‘Yes it’s safe there. It’s safe to be in front of my house.’ ”

Councilman Jack Tibbetts said he viewed the rollout as a “commercial enterprise” that perhaps was better suited to commercial areas given the city’s stated goal of helping strengthen the city’s wireless infrastructure to foster entrepreneurialism.

“I’d like to see residential zones be carved out in our ordinance,” Tibbetts said to loud applause in a chamber full of people wearing bright yellow stickers reading “Caution: Cell tower microwave frequency hazard.”

Critics seized upon a presentation that city and Verizon officials gave to the council Feb. 14, 2017, depicting poles with small cell technology. Some council members agreed that the images shown to the council differed substantially from what’s been popping up on poles in front of people’s homes.

Eric McHenry, the city’s chief information officer, explained that part of the disconnect was that there are two types of poles being envisioned for the Verizon project, wooden utility power maintained by Pacific Gas & Electric and steel streetlights owned by the city.

The city had been focusing more on the equipment proposed to adorn its poles, a process over which it has significant control, and less on the utility pole process, over which it has far less say, McHenry explained.

One of the elements that surprised some residents was the installation of cabinets full of batteries near the base of the poles. The metal cabinets are designed to keep the network operating for up to four hours in an emergency, but are not required. In a recently publicized case on Link Lane involving such a box in a tight planter strip, the city was able to work with Verizon to have it removed, McHenry said.

It’s not entirely clear just what the city has halted or for how long. Council members asked staff to halt the project and return with a plan for how to proceed. But a Verizon spokeswoman said work would continue on 25 other sites for which the city has issued permits.

“We’ve already received those permits so we have a legal right to move forward,” spokeswoman Heidi Flato said.

As for the other two PG&E sites and 31 city light poles for which the company has yet to obtain permits, Flato said the company would work closely with the city to assess its options. Advocates called for a six-month breather, but it was far from clear how much of a setback the move represented.

The city’s lack of direct control over Verizon’s right to use PG&E utility poles, a right enjoyed by telecommunications companies regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission, made the project’s future unclear.

Verizon had planned to install 41 antennas on wooden power poles, 31 on city street lights. But if the city limited the use of its poles, the suggestion was made that the Verizon might just shift everything over to PG&E poles.

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