AT&T and ExteNet Systems pushed for the "Distributed Antenna System" in the city's residential neighborhoods Tuesday at a City Council study session. The companies propose numerous low power 10-watt antennas, which stick up a few feet from the top of utility poles. They would be spread throughout neighborhoods, rather than on the large monopoles that might be rejected by the city and neighbors for aesthetic reasons.
AT&T's Randy Okimura said that among the area's tech savvy residents with smart phones, the "demand for data is insatiable." Data use among AT&T customers has increased "8,000 percent" since 2007, he said. "We are just trying to meet the needs of our customers."
Bill Stevens of ExteNet Systems, a utility company that leases antennas to service providers, said what he hears from cities is "make it small, make it less obtrusive. DAS allows for that."
Council members had mixed reactions.
Ronit Bryant described the idea as taking already ugly utility poles and "loading them with equipment. I would definitely prefer one big pole. Saying this is the least ugly thing we can do is an awfully sad way to move forward. This is not trying for the best solution; it is just going for the easiest and quickest way."
"I think we should ask the neighborhoods what they want," Bryant said. "There may be more people who think like me."
City staff members say they have seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications for cell towers in recent years, with 65 received since 2009. There are now cell towers on 64 sites in the city. However, there are areas not covered: all of Shoreline Park and much of the Monta Loma and Rengstorff residential neighborhoods, city staff reported in the study session Tuesday.
Staff reported that there would be a "significant" public benefit in allowing DAS. But it would require a change to the city's zoning ordinance to allow additional utility pole height, which the council could approve as early as September. DAS applications would still be subject to a design review permit and public hearing process.
A representative from Verizon had a different view on DAS, saying that the technology was less able to penetrate buildings than more powerful cell towers and monopoles. He added that utility poles could quickly become ugly with all of the boxes of equipment that may be necessary. While AT&T houses much of that equipment in central offices, Verizon does not, he said.
"If a neighborhood really needs it, then neighborhoods can choose," said council member Laura Macias.
Mayor Jac Siegel agreed. "We have 14 different neighborhoods. Ask them, see what they want."
Siegel urged the city to be flexible because the technology was rapidly changing, and cell companies were already considering newer technologies as it implements the latest. He also suggested the city allow cell antennas atop the police station's large monopole, "unless there's a security reason" not to do it.
Member Tom Means said he saw no problems with allowing cell antennas in Shoreline Park. Others weren't as supportive. "I don't really think there's a need right now to put poles in the park," said member Margaret Abe-Koga. "Can we put poles on the top of the (Shoreline Amphitheatre) tent? Make it look like a circus top." City staff said they had been curious about that as well.
Options for Shoreline Park, which may not have consistent coverage for calling 911, include cell antennas on PG&E lattice towers, which would require ground level equipment cabinets and access for service trucks.
"At this point, staff's position is to be very protective of parkland," said Zoning Administrator Peter Gilli. "If a proposal came in for Shoreline Park, we would say no."
Council member Mike Kasperzak suggested the city allow a cell antenna on top of the Rengstorff House at Shoreline Park. "I'm not really kidding about that," he said, adding that it could help fund Rengstorff House-related activities.
Macias and member John Inks also said they supported using city property for cell antennas to raise funds for city services. Three already exist on city property, including one at the Rengstorff Avenue fire station and two on Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lot light poles. The city receives $2,500 a month for each one.