SF Residents Battle Wireless Firms Over Super Bowl Building Boom

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Super Bowl 50 is expected to draw a million visitors to San Francisco and they’ll all be packing cellphones. Wireless providers are racing to beef up service but that’s coming at the expense of some unhappy residents.

Unless Ludwig Chincarini can convince the city to block the plan, Verizon will soon be installing a mini cell tower right outside his living-room window.

“I mean, the antenna is on the pole ten feet in front of my house,” said Chincarini.

Wireless carriers like Verizon are putting up thousands of the so-called distributed antenna systems in the Bay Area because they say demand for data has nearly doubled in the past year. The industry says these towers are safe. But Chincarini is not convinced.

“There are people who believe there could be effects, like cancer,” he said.

Distributed Antenna System for Wireless Communication

A distributed antenna system for mobile data communication in San Francisco. (CBS)

The Federal Communication Act of 1996 says cities and states can’t consider health concerns when regulating the placement of these devices, as long as wireless companies follow FCC radiation guidelines — guidelines that are based on science from the mid-1990s, when we all were still talking on brick-size mobile phones.

“The federal regulations are obsolete,” said Joel Moskowitz, who heads the Center for Family and Community Health at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

Moskowitz is among 215 scientists from 40 countries calling on the United Nations and the World Health Organization to develop stronger guidelines for electromagnetic radiation exposures.

“Many researchers that signed the appeal say it’s probably carcinogenic. My feeling is that it’s highly probable that it’s carcinogenic,” Moskowitz told KPIX 5.

But that doesn’t matter to the Feds. Due to that 20-year-old law, the only way residents can legally protest one of these RF-emitting cellphone antennas outside their window is to ignore health concerns and focus on the way they look.

RF Antenna

Due to a 20-year-old law, SF residents opposed to nearby RF-emitting antennas must claim they obstruct public views of a landmark or park. (CBS)

“It’s really based on aesthetics,” said Omar Masry, the wireless planner for the city of San Francisco. But Masry says aesthetics doesn’t refer merely to the view from your window.

The city can only deny a permit if it obstructs the “public view” of a historic landmark or a park.

That’s thanks to yet another dated law — this one passed by the state when horse and buggies still lined the streets — that gave telegraph companies the right to put up telegraph lines.

We asked Masry if the city has ever sided with residents and revoked the permit for one of these wireless towers. His response: “Well, a recent example was a site at Central and Page streets in the Haight Ashbury district. Residents raised concern about how the antennas would detract from a historic building.”

We asked, “So is it safe to say, once?” He replied: “Once, yes.”

That’s out of 249 protests over the past two years.

After Ludwig Chincarini lost his protest, he kept fighting, taking it to the San Francisco Appeals Board where (for $300) you have the right to fight the cell tower installers in person.

Ludwig presented slides that showed how the proposed tower would obstruct views of Golden Gate Park. He even brought up the subject of health, comparing safety assurances by the wireless industry to cigarette advertising from the 1950s, showing an ad that reads “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

“Today we laugh at things like that,” said Chincarini.

But an attorney for Crown Castle, the company installing Verizon’s cell sites, was quick to remind commissioners they can’t consider health concerns.

“As you have heard many times now that is simply not a matter that you are allowed to take into account,” said Martin Fineman.

Just when Ludwig figured he’d wasted $300 dollars, a surprise twist! Coincidentally, with our cameras rolling, the commissioners upheld an appeal for the second time ever, citing a technicality with the permit.

Verizon is now appealing that appeal. In a statement to KPIX 5 the company said:

“The demand for mobile data services in the U.S. has nearly doubled over the last year, and is expected to grow 650 percent between 2013 and 2018.* With San Francisco’s population continuing to rise at a record pace, and thousands of people coming to the city every day for work and to visit, adding capacity to our network is critical to keep the city connected. To meet the growing demand, Verizon Wireless is working to deploy a variety of solutions throughout San Francisco, including distributed antenna systems (DAS), small cells and traditional macro cell sites, all of which comply with FCC safety standards. These solutions will add capacity and improve in-building coverage, voice quality, reliability and data speeds for San Francisco residents, businesses, first responders and visitors using the Verizon Wireless Network.”

Crown Castle called KPIX 5 with the following statement:

“Crown Castle takes numerous factors into consideration during the design, engineering and construction of our network in order to most effectively provide the community with enhanced broadband service. Crown Castle believes the carefully engineered poles and route locations selected represent the best option for its network to benefit the community.”

The FCC said it is considering re-examining electromagnetic exposure limits.

And the World Health Organization said that, so far, there is no evidence of health effects from the distributed antenna systems.

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