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Upcoming meeting to explore 4G wireless technology

Santa Rosa and Verizon are holding a series of meetings in coming weeks to allay concerns about its network of 4G “small cell” wireless antenna equipment being installed on utility poles around the city.

The four joint Verizon/city meetings will take place:

— Monday, Feb. 26, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 637 First St.

— Saturday, March 3, from 10 a.m. to noon at Veteran’s Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave.

— Thursday, March 8, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Veteran’s Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave.

— Saturday, March 10, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Veteran’s Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave.

In addition the City Council is planning to hold a study session on the issue Tuesday, March 6, beginning at 3 p.m. at City Hall, 100 Santa Rosa Ave.

Wireless provider Verizon has paused the rollout of its next-generation network in Santa Rosa to hold a series of public meetings aimed at educating residents about its new “small cell” wireless installations on utility poles, which have triggered health and aesthetic concerns among residents.

The city and the company have agreed to hold off on further installation of new equipment until four public informational meetings, starting this week, and a study session before the City Council.

The pause comes in the wake of concerns and confusion about Verizon’s planned installation of up to 72 wireless antennas the company said it needs to boost the speed and reliability of its Santa Rosa network, which lags many other urban areas.

“We really are interested in helping educate residents and hopefully make them feel better about what we are doing,” said Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato.

Cellphone service in the county was widely disrupted in October, when a historic firestorm tore through the area and knocked out up to 70 towers, according to emergency officials.

But concerns about the Verizon equipment have been raised not only by residents but by City Council members and city staff.

The city’s chief information officer, Eric McHenry, who has a background in the telecom industry and is the lead staffer on the project, said he was surprised by some of the equipment Verizon was placing on wooden utility poles.

The equipment was installed properly by the company’s subcontractor and according to the plans submitted to the city, but nevertheless caught him off guard, McHenry said.

“They did not mislead us,” he said. “It’s just we had never seen one of these go up before.”

McHenry said he had been more focused on the equipment going up on the city-owned metal streetlights than on what was planned for the wooden “joint-use” utility poles around the city.

The light poles are metal and hollow, allowing some of the wiring to be installed inside the pole and providing a cleaner look.

But it was the first installation on wooden poles that caught people’s attention and raised concerns, ranging from unsightliness to fears of being exposed to high-frequency radio radiation.

At City Council meetings following a Press Democrat story in January about the issue, residents peppered the council with questions about how and why the project was approved, concerns about the health impacts and questions about whether the upgrades were really needed.

The crowds included a number of people with views outside the mainstream, posing theories, for example, that the antennas were part of an elaborate surveillance infrastructure.

Other voices were harder to dismiss.

Victor Trione, chairman of the largest local bank, Luther Burbank Savings, told the council that while upgrading the cellular network is probably a good idea, he was surprised to learn one such array was slated for installation in front of his Proctor Terrace home.

“We were not notified about this project,” Trione said.

“Having a facility like this 20 feet away from a bedroom is, I think, really problematic.”

McHenry said the city is working closely with Verizon to address questions being raised by residents and to make adjustments to the project where possible.

For example, some of the equipment involves batteries installed in cabinets in the city’s right-of-way.

The batteries are designed to ensure the network keeps operating in the event of a power outage. Verizon prefers to include such backup power supplies whenever possible, and the city was open to the idea given how important cellular communication is to people’s lives generally and in emergencies in particular, McHenry said.

“I think we would have done a disservice to our residents not to have looked for a way to get battery backups for the network,” he said.

The city is exploring which locations may need backup power and whether the batteries, which were designed to run the small cells for up to four hours, need to be as large as they are, he said.

No decisions have been made, but the company is “bending over backwards” to work with the city on a solution, McHenry said.

“They are really interested in trying to make sure this is a successful rollout,” he said.

The four joint meetings will take the form of a “science fair” where residents can get information on a range of subjects, including permitting issues, implications for coverage and human health.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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