The Los Altos City Council last week voted to schedule a special meeting for a final review of an urgency ordinance aimed at regulating the installation of small-cell node technology across the city. The meeting, slated for Monday evening, occurred after the Town Crier’s deadline.
In discussing the approaching wave of cellular providers applying to spread 5G technology in Los Altos, a topic that first surfaced at a July 9 council study session, varied opinions emerged.
Residents turned out in force at the study session to protest companies such as AT&T and Verizon installing small-cell nodes near their homes to boost cellphone capacity, alleging a litany of drawbacks such as negative impacts on property values, potential health hazards and the overall effect on aesthetics.
Approximately 25 residents spoke at the session, with 20 asking council members to pass a more stringent ordinance regulating permits than what telecommunications lawyer Gail Karish of Best Best & Krieger, LLP – which serves as Los Altos’ city attorney – had drafted and included in the staff report.
First responders, however, rely on the newest and most sophisticated technology to remain in contact with their colleagues, hospital staff and the general public in the wake of an emergency or natural disaster.
Included in the staff report was a memo from Los Altos Police Capt. Scott McCrossin to Police Chief Andy Galea, asserting that allowing 5G technology in the city is critical during and following an emergency. McCrossin cited the Camp Fire in Paradise as an example, noting that the failure of previously established early-warning communications technology in Paradise resulted in the quick spread of flames that ultimately engulfed the town.
“In short, macrocells (large-cell nodes) are for coverage and microcells (small-cell nodes) are for capacity,” McCrossin wrote. “In the public safety environment, fewer nodes means less capacity and would effectively hinder FirstNet BAND 14 build-out.”
FirstNet is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce charged with positioning and maintaining a nationwide broadband network dubbed BAND 14 strictly for public safety. Congress allocated funds to construct the network in 2012; the contract to build it was awarded to AT&T in 2017. All 50 states have opted in to the network.
Carriers roll out plans
While a group of residents opposes the expansion of small-cell nodes and law enforcement supports it, in the middle lies the carriers.
In 2017, AT&T requested a permit to place 22 small-cell nodes in Los Altos to accommodate its microcell technology, resident Carey Lai learned through a public records request. That’s in addition to a recent request to post 16 more on existing utility poles.
Lai, who is spearheading the fight against small-cell nodes after receiving a letter in the mail explaining that AT&T’s proposal included a node next to his property, called out the city for its lack of transparency, alleging that officials had “publicized the first ever Ice Cream with a Cop more than (a small-cell node installation).”
AT&T representatives spoke at the study session, the first time Karish and her team explained how U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulations limited local legislation, and representatives of Verizon offered a look at their plans for a 5G rollout. They are just two of the companies, according to Lai, that have the right through those same FCC standards to post across the city approximately 1,700 units that include one antenna, two radio units and one emergency power shut-off.
Residents with career-backed expertise in communications technology and its effects weighed in during public comment at the study session. Lai took issue with the semantics involved, noting that cell towers and small-cell nodes are the same thing.
“I believe that’s marketing euphemism from the wireless companies,” he said, verifying that his petition against the technology had garnered signatures from approximately 1,000 residents and explicitly opposed the installation of cell towers.
While the health effects of wireless technologies remain in dispute – most official regulatory agencies refute a connection between technology and diseases like cancer – Councilwoman Anita Enander pointed to what she felt could not be denied.
“We cannot hang our hats on health issues, but I am doggone sure we can hang our hats on aesthetics,” she said.
Although councilwomen Neysa Fligor and Jeannie Bruins were uncomfortable with a “copy and paste” ordinance proposed by Mayor Lynette Lee Eng, involving taking Mill Valley’s ordinance on wireless communications and filling in the blanks to reflect new Los Altos regulations, the council ultimately instructed Karish to customize the urgency ordinance to address the concerns of residents and officials within 72 hours.
After nearly six hours of debate on cell nodes alone, the council agreed a draft of the ordinance would be posted by the start of the weekend for review. If approved Monday, the ordinance would take effect immediately.