Next time you feel the urge to curse your wireless carrier for dropped calls and crappy reception, take a deep breath. Then, direct some of your wrath at a handful of NIMBY neighbors and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
By now you may have heard about the Great Bernal Hill Antenna Battle of 2010. The conflict involved a plan by Clearwire, a wireless service provider, to install several small microwave antennas — each is about the size of a basketball — on the big-ass microwave tower that has stood atop Bernal Hill since the 1960s.
Long-story-short: A few Bernal residents got wind of Clearwire’s antenna plan and became very very very agitated, on the scientifically dubious grounds that such antennas pose potential health risks. They took their concerns to Bernal’s Supervisor, David Campos, who embraced the effort to halt the installation of the antennas atop the tower which sits atop our beloved Bernal Hill. Supervisor Campos escalated the issue, and in November the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to block Clearwire’s antenna plan.
The genuine journalists at Mission Loc@l summarize the politics of the move, and its consequences:
The vote was a clear victory for the anti-antenna movement, and a setback for Clearwire and others trying to install new antennas throughout the city.
The proposed dish antennas would have provided better coverage to the laptops and phones of Clearwire customers in five neighborhoods including the Mission, Mission Dolores, the Excelsior and Silver Terrace.
Two of the antennas would have connected with two dishes on buildings on Alabama and Valencia streets. Without them, the sites will continue to be disconnected. The connections would have improved Clearwire’s service.
That’s the polite version. Last week, CurbedSF took off the gloves to tell it straight:
Everything was going smoothly and then BOOM, Bernal Heights NIMBYs started circulating emails around about how in the event of an earthquake, the potential antenna could “accidentally zap residents with concentrated radio waves.” They wanted an environmental impact report. Shoot forward to present day and the proposed antenna isn’t going to happen. The Board of Supes voted unanimously this week to repeal the conditional use permit given in July to Clearwire. The reason? They voted against the conditional use permit because the American Tower Corporation failed to meet the standards of a permit granted last year. “Neighbors alleged- and the supes agreed — that American Tower had failed to meet the maintenance requirements laid out in the 2009 T-mobile conditional use permit.” Things like landscaping, keeping it graffiti-free, etc. Congrats, anti antenna movement. Now our cellphones will continue to not work.
CurbedSF got it right. Under federal law, SF’s Board of Supervisors cannot deny a permit for wireless antennas on the basis of scientifically unproven health risks. The antennas themselves are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, so if a Supervisor wants to kill the antennas, he needs to come up with a different reason. Ergo, barring the antennas because the tower’s control station is covered with graffiti. (Although, here it must be noted that the the facility was recently repainted, even though some graffiti has already returned.)
When I contacted the owner of the antennas, the American Tower Company, to get their side of the story, they said, “We have no comment while we evaluate the decision by the Board of Supervisors.”
As I watched this Great Bernal Hill Antenna Battle unfold over the course of this year, the attitudes of some of our anti-antenna neighbors became particularly disheartening. I was present on some of the mailing lists where “action alerts” about the anti-antenna campaign were distributed, and it was some extremely silly stuff. Here’s an excerpt from an email sent on August 1, 2010:
These high intensity microwave antennas would operate point-to-point and have line-of-sight transmission with other dishes around the City rather than using the fiber optics that are typical of other companies. If any of these dishes go out of alignment (due to an earthquake or disturbance of the structures onto which they would be attached), these highly directional beams may cross the path of people and expose them to radiation levels above FCC limits.
Upon reading this, a very patient and knowledgeable gentleman who said he previously worked with microwave transmission systems at Lawrence Berkeley Labs replied to reassure the antenna worry-warts. He wrote:
Microwaves are in no way related to nuclear radiation and have no radioactive source, they’re very much the same as radio waves your AM or FM radio receives, just at a different frequency.
The power used by microwave communication dishes is far less than a typical microwave oven, most microwave ovens leak more energy than a microwave communication system. The frequencies used for microwave communications are the same as those used by your oven and WiFi access points, the only difference is that the access point you have in your house is designed to transmit in every direction, so you’re always exposed, and a dish is designed to transmit as a beam. Think of a light bulb that illuminates an entire room and a flashlight that puts a spot on the wall, exactly the same principle is used; the dish on Bernal Hill would be performing the same function as the parabolic mirror in a flashlight.
NAME REDACTED is concerned about the microwave beam hitting a person in the event of an earthquake. I understand the concern but it is unfounded. First, the equipment is designed to turn off within a fraction of a second of the dishes becoming misaligned. Even if that failed (which is very unlikely) if you did walk in front of the dish while it was on not much would happen. I know, I’ve done it many times.
His effort was pointless, because the anti-antenna NIMBY had zero interest in listening:
To our knowledge, no scientific study on the potential health risks or environmental risks of this project has been done. While we appreciate everyone’s perspectives, we believe that until this happens, everyone’s opinions about the relative health risks involved are just that, opinions.
Get that? This particular project requires an Environmental Impact Report, even though tens of thousands of identical such systems are in use worldwide. (HINT: Whenever you hear the battle cry of “We need an EIR!” you know you are in the presence of an intractable Enemy of Progress.)
The facts about the safety of microwave antennas have been well-established for decades. And never mind that Bernal Hill was once home to a much, much larger microwave antenna array for 40 years, with no ill health effects reported. None of that is at all relevant, because San Francisco’s antennaphobes don’t want to hear such “opinion.” They operate on the basis of their own impenetrable anxieties, and no amount of fact is likely dissuade them from their pre-determined conclusions. It’s regrettable but it must be said: These “progressive” antennaphobes revealed themselves to be knuckle-dragging reactionaries, and no different than those who would dismiss Darwinian evolution as being a mere “theory,” climate change as some sort of scientific snow-job, and fluoridated water as a Communist conspiracy. *sigh*
Alas, true progress — the meaningful kind, which matters a great deal to thousands of Bernal residents who want to conduct business and create new economic opportunities in our neighborhood — requires a more sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure than we have now. So will we get it?
I put a call in to Supervisor David Campos to ask that very question. It’s to be expected that a few neighborhood
activists zealots will into a tizzy from time to time; why did the Board of Supervisors yield to their frenzied whims?
During our conversation, Supervisor Campos stood by the publicly stated reason for the Board’s refusal to permit the new antennas. “A conditional use was given, but the conditions [regarding the landscaping and appearance of the tower facility] were not met,” he said. “There’s no excuse. When we tell a vendor to do something, they should do what we say.”
Then what of the potential health impacts of mobile base station antennas?
“We had no basis to deny the request on health grounds,” Campos said, adding, “We’ve asked the FCC to conduct further study on the health implications of these devices.”
Why? What are those health implications?
“I don’t have any evidence of a health risk,” Campos said. “But many people have raised those issues, so they are a concern. Science changes all the time, so we should be cautious, even if there is no scientific evidence that this technology is a health hazard.”
Okay, so we should be wary, even though we have no credible reason to be wary. Of course. I then asked Supervisor Campos to summarize what he has done to expand the wireless infrastructure in Bernal Heights and improve mobile coverage in our neighborhood.
“It’s a problem,” he conceded. “A better approach is to take a comprehensive look at this, as a way to improve service. I hope that happens down the road.”
So there we have it: All it takes to kill an effort to provide Bernal Heights and our surrounding neighborhoods with some 21st century wireless technology is a group of addled NIMBYs and a thin veneer of recently applied graffiti. But improving service requires a master plan. Which may get written. After some research. Someday. Perhaps.
Bottom line: Don’t count on your mobile reception getting any better, anytime soon. And so while our elected officials take their time pondering solutions to our telecommunications woes, Bernalwood would like to offer you a new product that may be of interest to partisans on *both* sides of the Great Antenna Divide: It’s a combination tinfoil beanie and wireless signal booster that promises to both shield users from RF radiation *and* reduce the frequency of dropped calls. You can see it in the photo above, and look for it soon at finer Cortland merchants, Sharper Image stores, or a SkyMall catalog near you!