Sebastopol officials reject offer of free Wi-Fi downtown due to health concerns; proponents say that's ridiculous

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Concerned about possible health effects from wireless Internet networks, Sebastopol officials have reversed course and turned down a free Wi-Fi area network.

The City Council voted 4-0 last week to rescind an agreement with Sonic.net that would have allowed the Santa Rosa-based Internet provider to install the network in the city center as it has done in the downtowns of Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

Sebastopol Mayor Craig Litwin thanked Sonic for a "very nice gesture" but said citizens had voiced concerns that "create enough suspicion that there may be a health hazard."

Sonic CEO Dane Jasper said his company is sympathetic to those who blame radiofrequency signals for their health problems.

But he maintained that the exposure from a Wi-Fi network would be "a drop in the bucket" compared to the amount that people receive daily from TV, radio and cellular phone signals.

Moreover, he said, downtown Sebastopol already has plenty of businesses emitting Wi-Fi signals. In a one-block radius around the town's central intersection of Bodega Avenue and Main Street, Jasper detected 25 such signals. His company had proposed to add one more signal at that intersection.

"Wi-Fi is pretty much everywhere," he said.

Jasper and Wi-Fi critics strongly disagree on what is known about the possible health risks from radiofrequency, or RF, signals.

Jasper cited the World Health Organization. Its Internet site concludes: "Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects."

But critics said good studies exist that show ill effects to both adults and children from such signals. And they disputed Jasper's contention that one more wireless network will have a negligible effect on Sebastopol residents.

"A little bit more is going to cause a little more problems," said Jeffrey Fawcett, president of the Sustainable Health Institute, an educational nonprofit based in Camp Meeker.

Last fall the council reached agreement with Sonic to install the network, which would allow wireless Internet connections for people with Wi-Fi-enabled devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones.

Sebastopol resident Sandi Maurer gathered support to persuade the council to reconsider the matter.

Maurer, who said she is sensitive to electricity much as some people are sensitive to chemicals, worked with others to gather roughly 500 signatures from people concerned about the effects of Wi-Fi signals.

Sebastopol Councilwoman Linda Kelley requested that the issue come back to the council last week, giving Maurer and other critics a chance to successfully plead their case.

"I feel very grateful to the City Council, to Linda Kelley," Maurer said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com

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