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Los Altos residents fight installation of cell nodes near homes


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A utility pole on Panchita Way serves as an example of the technology AT&T has requested a permit to install across Los Altos: small-cell node facilities, such as an extension for an antenna, to expand 5G service.

As they celebrated the country’s independence July 4, more than 120 Los Altos residents also fought cellular provider AT&T by signing a petition to protest the city granting a permit to the company – one that would allow it to install small-cell nodes near their homes.

As of the Town Crier deadline, that number had grown to approximately 440 resident signatures.

To address the opposition effort, city staff scheduled a study session prior to the July 9 Los Altos City Council meeting to educate the community on the AT&T request. Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to enact an urgency ordinance that will prioritize development of stricter regulation of what is likely one of the first of many such permit requests from cell carriers.

You’ve got mail

Los Altos Avenue resident Carey Lai launched the petition after receiving a junk-mail-looking envelope with a return address from “L.A. Mapping Services.” Lai almost tossed it, but his curiosity won; inside, he found a letter titled “AT&T is working to improve wireless service in the city of Los Altos!”

Lai read that AT&T was proposing to install “state-of-the-art wireless communication small-cell node facilities on existing wood utility poles.” The facilities would include one antenna, two radio units and one emergency power shut-off. The objective? AT&T sought to “increase capacity in high-demand areas and … increase wireless connection reliability for customers.”

The technology venture capitalist was stunned. Lai said he and his wife moved their family to Los Altos eight months ago for the “village feel.” According to Lai, the poles, which each carrier has the right to install or alter under U.S. Federal Communications Commission standards, are inconsistent with the neighborhood’s aesthetic. As he researched whether AT&T’s push was occurring in other Bay Area cities and the possible effects of the new technology, Lai pinpointed the spot for a proposed pole he was notified about – located just 10 feet outside his daughter’s bedroom.

Lai was not the only resident who received the letter. When he went door to door to talk with neighbors and devise a battle plan to fight AT&T, he learned that a resident near the corner of Valencia Drive and Almond Avenue had received a similar flier from Verizon. Lai drove to an adjacent neighborhood, where he found one of the small-cell node facilities, coincidentally positioned directly across the street from a council member’s home.

Up to date

At last week’s study session, Gail Karish of Best Best & Krieger LLP – which serves as Los Altos’ city attorney – gave a presentation explaining small-cell node equipment and how FCC legislation in 2018 was designed to expedite its arrival in cities across the U.S.

Cities have adopted a variety of policies to streamline the introduction of 4GLTE or 5G service provided by the small-cell node technology, but officials are hamstrung by specific requirements – for example, no moratoriums or anything resembling a moratorium could be used to delay the implementation of the technology. Also, despite peer-reviewed articles that claim living near cell towers may cause cancer – a notion most regulatory agencies dispute – cities cannot deny permits based on concern for well-being as a result of emission levels.

On top of what cities cannot do, there are several things they must do: Staff and its legislative bodies must act “within a reasonable period of time.” FCC regulations state that cities have 60-90 days to act on proposals for small wireless facilities. Fees for permits and for use of city-owned “vertical infrastructure,” or utility poles, also must be “cost-based, established safe harbors,” per regulations.

Karish said the city of Los Altos established wireless communications standards in 2011 when the council voted to issue encroachment permits for distributed antenna systems facilities in the public right-of-way. Prior to that decision, the ordinance hadn’t been updated since 2005.

Elephant in the room

Because the permit application from AT&T is still being processed – and currently deemed incomplete – City Attorney Chris Diaz urged council members to discuss only the possible revisions to the wireless communications ordinance at hand rather than focus on the catalyst for the study session: AT&T’s request. Diaz again requested the situation not be discussed when Mayor Lynette Lee Eng called on representatives from Verizon and AT&T to make their cases after Karish’s presentation.

While Lai said the urgency ordinance, which is set to return to the council for discussion July 30, is a “critical first step,” he and his neighbors remain skeptical of their city representatives.

“I don’t trust our city manager (Chris Jordan) and city attorney (Diaz) to do the right thing,” Lai said in an email to the Town Crier the morning after the study session. “I’ve met with them, and I don’t feel they have our best interests at heart, even though they have a fiduciary responsibility to us.” 

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