Verizon proposes small-cell transmitters in Napa

Verizon Wireless is proposing to install "small-cell" transmitters (shorter towers) at 24 locations in Napa, with some units to be mounted atop existing utility poles and others incorporated into replacement poles. This example would be installed in the 2400 block of Soscol Avenue, Verizon officials said during a public forum on Thursday.

This year, two dozen utility poles around Napa may gain something extra on top.

Compact cellular transmitters are slated for installation atop poles in various neighborhoods, in the debut of an effort by Verizon Wireless to improve call capacity and Internet speeds for users of mobile phones and tablet computers.

The so-called “small cells” – a fraction the size and range of conventional wireless towers – will be added as attachments to existing power poles, or included in replacement poles up to 52 feet high, taller than normal to improve signal range.

Installation is expected to take place within the next two months and continue during 2018, according to Rommel Angeles, a network implementation manager for Verizon in Northern California. Spokespeople for the carrier said they have received permits from Napa to install 24 of the devices across the city, at locations including Franklin, Coombs, Jefferson and Greenbach streets as well as Old Sonoma and Browns Valley roads and Cabot Way.

Designed to augment wireless coverage rather than extend it to unserved areas, small cells provide a signal for about a 1,000-foot radius compared to the one-mile range common to traditional towers, Angeles said. Their smaller size allows carriers to mount them to power poles, streetlights, traffic-light masts and other fixtures.

As wireless devices become more common, the growing shift from voice calls and texting to web pages, photos, video and other signal-hungry media is prompting Verizon and other carriers to bolster the depth as well as breadth of their service areas, according to Angeles.

“The driver is the customer experience and the growth of data,” he said. “The past few years have seen a significant increase in usage of smartphones, and so we have a densification program to meet customer demands (and) also the growth we’re anticipating.”

The coming rollout received a low-key public introduction Thursday night, when Verizon hosted an open house in Napa to explain the technology to the small cells’ future neighbors.

Verizon officials said it mailed notices to homeowners within 150 feet of each new transmitter and invited them to the 90-minute forum at the Napa Elks Lodge. Attendance was light, however, rarely numbering more than a dozen residents at a time – many of them from Sierra Avenue a short drive north.

Among them were about a half-dozen neighbors who were determined not to let new cell transmitters onto their street without a fight, citing their fears for increased radio-frequency radiation they asserted increases cancer risks.

The American Cancer Society says such fears have not been proved, although studies continue.

“I paid PG&E to have my smart meter removed, because I wanted to keep the radiation away from the bedroom – and now this,” said Julia Kyle, whose home would be in front of a small cell on Sierra Avenue. “I feel like it’s worth the fight to oppose it. These things were done without our permission and against our will.”

Another neighborhood resident was less worried about the effect of a new cell transmitter on her health, but wondered whether Verizon could have instead set it up farther from homes to avoid spoiling the view – even after spokespeople told her what factors go into choosing tower sites.

“It’s still not clear to me why they can’t put it in a more discreet spot in the neighborhood; I’m not convinced that’s the only viable location,” said Kerry Murphy, who moved into the north Napa neighborhood four years ago. “These poles are 50 feet tall – that’s not small. To have one in front of a tiny house, with metal boxes attached, it creates an eyesore. Still don’t understand why they can’t put it over at Bel Aire Plaza instead.”

In particular, Murphy warned that even pole-top antennas would require an objectionable amount of equipment cabinets closer to the ground — one of the complaints made by Santa Rosa residents after that city agreed to a deal for Verizon to install 72 of the compact transmitters. The Santa Rosa City Council last month asked its staff to freeze that rollout and return with a new plan, but Verizon announced it would continue work on another 25 cells for which it already had received permits, according to the Press Democrat.

Small antennas and equipment boxes connected to them will be painted to match the color of the attached pole, according to Angeles, who said one location may be chosen over another if trees or other features make it less visible.

What recourse local small-cell opponents have to stop or slow the rollout remains unclear.

A similar project by Verizon was reviewed in December by the City Council, which approved it. But that project involved placing transmitters on light poles and traffic signal masts owned by Napa, instead of wooden utility poles controlled by PG&E.

Eric Whan, deputy public works director for Napa, said federal telecommunications law bars cities from blocking cellular equipment outright. Verizon’s new transmitters, however, require city “encroachment” permits for the power and data lines serving each site and governing their height and appearance, a process Napa is handing through staff in its Public Works department for the privately owned PG&E poles, according to Whan.

A federal law from 1996 bans cities and states from restricting any wireless communication service on environmental grounds, provided that it complies with radio emission limits set by the Federal Communications Commission, officials said.

Telecommunications firms last year threw their weight behind a California bill that would have scaled back the permitting process for smaller antennas, partly to remove roadblocks to the installation of faster fifth-generation wireless service. Senate Bill 649 passed through the Legislature but was vetoed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown, who opposed the loss of county and city control over wireless equipment, according to reports.

Another bill introduced in Congress could curb state and local authority over small cells, and with it cities’ efforts to decide how many antennas and what kinds can be installed, House documents show. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-North Carolina, introduced House Resolution 689 in January that says federal funding to “wireless broadband providers to promote wireless broadband deployment” should go first to states “that have enacted streamlined siting requirements for small cells.”

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.