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Santa Rosa to reconsider rollout of small-cell wireless technology

Santa Rosa is gearing up to allow wireless companies to install antennas and wireless technology on city-owned utility poles, starting with a handful of so-called “small cell” sites in commercial areas across the city before expanding to residential neighborhoods.

The City Council is set to meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to discuss potential small site installations by Verizon and AT&T, which wireless companies install to expand coverage and improve existing service. Many already have been installed in Santa Rosa on various PG&E poles, over which the city says it has no control.

The study session is meant to lay groundwork for new city rules governing small cells on Santa Rosa-owned light poles and traffic signals, where the city can decide whether to allow small cells, said Gabe Osburn, the city’s deputy director of development services. The hope is to try to find common ground among community concerns, telecommunications provider plans and council feedback to develop guidelines for cell site installations, he said, noting that “20 feet in front of someone’s house might not be the best location.”

“We’re going to focus more on those core concerns people had and look forward to a way to address those through a revision in the future of our telecommunications policy and the various ordinances that govern telecommunications here,” Osburn said.

The City Council in 2017 agreed to allow cell providers to put small cells on city-owned infrastructure but paused that rollout in 2018 after community members expressed concerns about aesthetics and questions about health effects.

It’s possible the city could decide to allow providers to use city-owned poles in exchange for an agreement not to install small cells a given distance from homes or other cellular facilities, but “we’re not right at that stage yet,” Osburn said. More clarity about when the City Council might act is expected after Tuesday’s discussion.

Verizon is currently the only wireless provider with small cell technology in Santa Rosa, with at least 31 active sites, according to city documents. A Verizon spokesperson said the company has been “working closely with city staff to come up with a small cell solution that all parties can agree on” with a goal “to improve network performance in the area and stay ahead of growing demand for wireless data services.”

Opponents hope to use Tuesday’s public session to pressure Santa Rosa to limit the spread of wireless technology within city limits, curtailing especially the presence near residences and schools, said Alex Krohn, a physical therapist who runs a Santa Rosa-specific Facebook page dedicated to “informing people about the hazards of wireless microwave technology.”

“I hope that we can control the amount of power that the small cell facilities are emitting,” Krohn said. “I believe the antennas are way too powerful and way too low to the ground.”

He referenced a coalition of about 250 scientists from more than 40 countries who have asked United Nations officials to, according to their petition, “reassess the potential biological impacts of next generation 4G and 5G telecommunication technologies to plants, animals and humans” given the spread of new antennas throughout residential areas.

Krohn, a Santa Rosa native, noted the difference between ensuring everyone can send and receive wireless emergency communications and “making sure that people can download Avengers in four seconds.”

The World Health Organization in 2011 deemed radiofrequency radiation like that emitted by mobile phones “possibly carcinogenic” to humans after studies showed a higher risk for brain cancer associated with wireless phone use. This rating is similar to the organization’s evaluation of gasoline, indoor wood-burning fireplaces, red meat and night-shift work, and lower than the definitively “carcinogenic” classification awarded to substances such as alcohol and asbestos.

The Federal Communications Communication, which regulates wireless companies including Verizon and AT&T, has taken the position that “no scientific evidence currently establishes a definite link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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