I recently attended the screening of Talal Jabari's documentary, Full Signal, at the Hollywood Theatre and met with representatives of the City of Portland to learn more about the issue of cell tower/antennae placement in residential neighborhoods. Here's what I learned.
Full Signal played at the Hollywood Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 21. A large audience (around 350) turned out for the screening, which was followed by a Q&A session with the director. City Commissioner Nick Fish (who lives nearby in the district) was there, and he made some comments as well. The film explores growing concern about cellular technology around the world, simultaneous with a lack of serious scientific study of the health effects. This was not a "balanced" presentation of the subject, as nearly everyone interviewed felt that there were actual or potential health risks, but it was thought-provoking and a good introduction to the issue. For more information about the documentary, you can go to fullsignalmovie.com. Commissioner Fish pointed out that the Federal Telecommunications Act bars cities like Portland from preventing the location of cell antennas along rights of way for health or other environmental reasons. He mentioned that the City Council--under leadership from Commissioner Amanda Fritz--had recently passed a resolution demanding that the federal government initiate serious studies of the health effects. They also would like to see authority restored to the cities. However, at present, federal law pre-empts their ability to regulate. Director Jabari acknowledged that there is presently no definitive evidence linking proximity to cell antennae and health problems, His goal with the film is to build pressure to get the research going. Until then, he feels it's best to err on the side of caution. He reported that some European countries are prohibiting cell towers from being located near schools or nursing homes. Jabari also pointed out that having a wireless network in your home has as much effect as being located next to a wireless tower. He urged people to avoid them or at least keep them turned off when they are not being actively used. He urged people to use corded headphones for their phones, rather than wireless headsets, which are continually pulsing beside one's skull. Finally, he urged people to turn off their cell phones when not using them.
Meeting with the City of Portland
I met with people from the City's Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management on March 3. This is obviously an issue of concern to them, and they were happy to use our office as another vehicle to get the word out on the challenges that they face. As is often the case, they find themselves in the middle of competing needs: cell phones are becoming more and more common (Portland has more households without landlines than households without a cell phone), and people want good coverage; on the other hand, they are concerned about having antennae near their homes, for reasons of aesthetics, impact on property value, noise, and health impacts, particularly on children. I asked the officials about all of these. The real expert in this area is David Soloos, who has been with the office for a number of years and is a nationally-recognized expert on this issue. He explained to me that the City does not want dedicated cell towers in residential areas. In residential areas they prefer to co-locate with existing utility poles or replace existing poles with poles of the same style but slightly higher. These antennae are designed to blend in with the existing equipment. The antennae, he argued, are not aesthetic detriments. The antenna that is being proposed at NE 37th and Fremont will not actually be for cell phones, but rather for ClearWire's Wi-Max wireless internet franchise. The antenna will go on the utility pole outside of Wilshire Market, and additional equipment will go in a shed on the market's premises. Unfortunately, this equipment is noisy. Noise is a problem for the unit at the Fremont United Methodist Church, particularly for the people who live right next door. I was told that the unit may be in violation of the City's noise code, and they are talking to Clear about making changes to dampen the sound. Clear's contract with the City is up for renewal in 2012, and if they cannot come up with quieter units, they may be required to bury all their units. By the way, although the City is pre-empted from denying antennae to be placed in public rights-of-way, there is nothing requiring churches, businesses, and other private entities to rent out their space to cell or wi-max companies. They can end their contracts for health, aesthetic, sound, or other reasons if they so choose. I asked about the health effects and was told that the World Health Organization has not yet found any causal connection between cell antennae and cancer or other diseases. There have not been major government studies done in this country. The City would also like to see more definitive study results on the health effects, if any, of this technology. To see the resolution that the Council passed last May, urging the Federal government to seriously study the health effects of wireless signals, click here. If you agree with the resolution and/or would like to see the federal pre-emption on local siting decisions removed, consider writing to your Congressional representative and senators.
Restrictions that cities face when they want to regulate cell technology (handout) For a collection of City regulations and other wireless-related materials, click here. You can contact the Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management through their website. I hope this information is of use to you. If you have any questions or information on this subject that you'd like to pass on to me, please do get in touch. --Michael