Column: Another Reason for AT&T's Poor Wireless Service

AT&T has poor wireless service because of bad business decisions and federal regulations, not local zoning codes, says one local activist who is part of an advocacy group that says its goal is to encourage responsible oversight of wireless facilities.

[Editor's Note: The city's Planning & Zoning Commission will  at its Jan. 10 meeting. . Read more about mobile phone issues in Albany here, and click the "Keep me posted" button below for alerts when we post about this topic.]

An Albany Patch article on Nov. 28, 2011, pointed out that AT&T has . Some reader comments implied that the reason for the lack of sites is Albany’s zoning code and the way it regulates placement of cellular antennas.

In fact, the lack of AT&T sites in Albany has nothing to do with Albany’s zoning code. The reason AT&T has —and in many other places in the U.S.—is a poor business decision in 2005 to sell a large portion of what would have been AT&T’s network to T-Mobile. 

Here’s the history:

What is now AT&T is the result of the former Cingular Wireless's purchase of AT&T Wireless in 2005. At the time of that purchase, Cingular had two sites in Albany: at Town Centre shopping center on San Pablo Ave. and at St. Mary's High School on the southeast side of town. When Cingular bought AT&T, it changed the name of the new combined business to AT&T and sold the former Cingular GSM (global mobile system) network, including the two Albany sites, to T-Mobile for $2.5 billion.

The new AT&T dissolved a pre-existing joint venture between Cingular and T-Mobile in which those two carriers shared sites and divested itself of the Cingular network, which went to T-Mobile. These were among the conditions on which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the Cingular-AT&T merger. The FCC’s stated goal was to preserve competitiveness in the wireless industry and prevent any single carrier from dominating the market.

Subsequently, the new AT&T contracted to provide iPhone wireless service, knowing full well that, without the Cingular network, it did not have the capability to support the demand the iPhone would generate.  

So, yes, AT&T coverage in Albany is poor and AT&T has no sites in Albany. Why? Because AT&T gave away to T-Mobile the two sites it would have had in Albany.

Ironically, AT&T has since been trying to buy T-Mobile, presumably in part to get back at least some of the network it sold to T-Mobile at the time of the AT&T-Cingular merger. However, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit in 2011 to block this merger, and, in November, AT&T withdrew its FCC application to acquire T-Mobile.

The story of Cingular, AT&T and T-Mobile, and the musical-chairs ownership of cell sites, raises the question of to what extent regulations to preserve an ostensibly "competitive" cell phone industry are actually in the best interests of consumers.  

Arguably, a single unified nationwide cell network, similar to our single nationwide landline infrastructure, would provide better service.

With a single network using one technology, instead of the competing networks and sometimes incompatible technologies of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, MetroPCS and Sprint/Nextel (five companies now, down from what used to be seven major wireless carriers), all customers would get the same access to the physical infrastructure that transmits and receives wireless data.

As this history makes clear, our local regulations are not the reason for AT&T’s lack of cell sites in Albany.  

AT&T’s business decision and the FCC’s conditions on the AT&T-Cingular merger resulted in AT&T losing the two Cingular sites in Albany. The result of this combination of bad decision making and FCC mandates results in the city bearing an unfair burden of permitting new AT&T sites in our community, which already has more cell sites per capita than surrounding cities, to make up for the fact that AT&T had sites here and gave them up.

Nan Wishner
Albany Residents for Responsible Oversight of Wireless (ARROW)

Read more about mobile phone issues in Albany here, and click the "Keep me posted" button below for alerts when Patch posts about this topic.

Nan Wishner January 07, 2012 at 03:07 AM
Hello Montgomery, Let me see if I can explain why asking the city to approve new AT&T sites when the city already approved AT&T sites that were then given away is an unfair burden. There are two reasons. One is that Albany already has more cell antenna sites per square mile than any other neighboring city. For example, Albany currently has 7 cell sites within our 1 square mile while Berkeley, which is 18 square miles, has 26 sites. These numbers are quite disproportionate: if the ratio of 7 sites per square mile were applied in Berkeley, Berkeley would have 126 sites. That gives you an idea how many more we have than our fair share. For the second reason: we already gave AT&T (then Cingular) permits for two sites, they gave those sites away without the city having any say in the matter, and now they want permits for more sites. Maybe an analogy can make it clear though it isn't perfect. Let's say Albany wants to restrict the number of fast food restaurants and gives a permit for a MacDonald's; then, MacDonald's sells its site to Burger King and comes back asking for a new permit to build a another MacDonald's. To make the analogy complete, let's say there's a federal law that says we have to allow MacDonald's to have a location in the city. We had no say in the fact that we got a Burger King in place of the first MacDonald's, and now we will be stuck with 2 fast food restaurants even though we might have only wanted 1 in the city.
Nan Wishner January 07, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Hi Caryl, One factual correction to your post: the previous proposal for AT&T antennas at 1035 San Pablo was not approved by the Planning & Zoning Commission because of a provision of Albany's general zoning ordinance (not the wireless ordinance) that regulates how much of a rooftop can be covered by ancillary structures. I believe there was also a problem with meeting the height regulations specified in that same section of the zoning code.
Michael Barnes January 07, 2012 at 05:28 AM
I'd like to know the names of the scientists and radio frequency engineers who are a part of ARROW's 100 families. If they care about this issue, let them speak in public. C'mon folks, let's hear from you. Hello? Hello? Are you really there?
Michael Barnes January 07, 2012 at 05:38 AM
Wisher has been making this unrealistic "unfair burden" argument for years. It never made any sense. Several of Albany's cell towers are down by the freeway. A few more are barely inside the city's boundary. I can walk from my house in be in four different cities within a few hundred yards. City boundaries don't matter much between Albany, El Cerrito, Berkeley and Kensington. Not to me, not to radio waves. As for the analogy, it assumes up front that cell towers are something like fast food restaurants--something unhealthy that needs to be restricted. While this probably reflects the pseudoscientific view of the ARROW group, that reality is that Albany would be better off with more cell sites, not fewer. So the analogy is flawed from the start.
Brian Parsley January 07, 2012 at 05:45 AM
Unfortunately, they probably have AT&T and are unable to respond to you Michael.
Michael Barnes January 07, 2012 at 06:25 AM
Brian, maybe they should come to the Planning and Zoning commission meeting on the 10th (Tuesday) at City Hall. 7:30 pm. They can speak in favor of the AT&T cell site proposal at 1035 San Pablo. But don't get your hopes up that even after four years of discussion, P&Z will actually make a decision. The purpose of this agenda item, is to receive a report and provide feedback to staff and the applicant. For those of you who wonder how your city government works (or fail to), Tuesday night will be an education.
Michael Barnes January 07, 2012 at 06:36 AM
Hey, I have an idea! Let's all just get into our yoga poses, mediate and learn to communicate with each other telepathically. That would solve all our problems, right? Well, just one problem. It won't happen. Therefore we should ignore the possibility of telepathic communication in making decisions about citing cell facilities. Logic dictates that arguments should be free of irrelevant alternatives like telepathy. That is what is fundamentally wrong with Wishner's thinking. All the discussion of FCC policy and a single unified cell network is as irrelevant as telepathy. It ain't gonna happen, so there is no point in discussing it. The fundamental reality here is that Albany needs more realistic cell tower policies.
John Doh! January 07, 2012 at 08:13 PM
Michael, Your written arguments remind me of Rick Santorum this past week telling a young woman that her view that same sex marriage should be legal was not reasonable (since he equates same sex marriage to polygamy and man on dog marriage,) as he dismissed everything she said. Surely, you can't be serious when you dismiss other people's opinions because they don't match yours.
Copper Hat January 07, 2012 at 08:57 PM
I hope some aesthetic will be considered with new antennae. For those concerned about radiation (I am not, other than verifying compliance), there is some irony in the fact that more cell stations will reduce the transmission power needed at any given station.
Doug Donaldson January 09, 2012 at 08:07 PM
SO WHAT, I say to this editorial. So what if AT&T made bad business decisions in 2005? So what if the proposed AT&T merger fell apart because Justice Department said it would violate our anti-trust laws. So what if AT&T is one of those companies people love to hate.? These would be relevant considerations if the City of Albany were a regulatory agency -- but it is not. The AT&T business that matters in Albany is whether or not the company can provide good service for its many local subscribers. It doesn’t now and the application in front of the P&Z is intended to help alleviate this deficiency. I submit that our city’s decision makers have an obligation to support improvements in public utility services that benefit those of us who are residents. If it were the City’s job to punish AT&T, then the arguments in this editorial would be relevant. But that is not the City’s job and this editorial has no bearing on the application in front of the P&Z on Tuesday.
Alan Riffer January 09, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Nan, Which nation has a single landline infrastructure? For over five years, my household has used Vonage (and its Voice Over Internet Protocol) for residential telephone service. It uses the Comcast cable system, not the telephone wires owned by Pac Bell or its successor organizations. Perhaps you mean shared telephone pole instead of shared landline. In which case, you should support the shared use of the structure at 423 San Pablo by Verizon and Metro PCS. But, no, you find some other reason to object to efforts to remedy Albany's inadequate, obsolete cellular service.
Ed Fields January 10, 2012 at 12:11 AM
AT&T’s application is not in compliance with the parts of our Zoning Code relating to coverage of roof tops with structures that exceed the height limit. If the AT&T antennas are added to the existing Sprint/Nextel antennas at 1035 San Pablo Avenue, the maximum radiated power (EIRP) will be about 12,000 watts, based on AT&T's RF consultant’s calculations. This is far higher than we have seen in a cell tower application. According to the consultant, at the top-floor elevation of any nearby building, the public would be exposed to a maximum of 11 percent of the continuous radio frequency emissions the FCC regulations allow (using some "worst case assumptions"). If your bedroom were on the roof beyond 42 feet directly in front of the antennas, that would be just below the FCC’s limit for permissible exposure. I agree that AT&T's cell phones don't work all that well in parts of Albany. I don’t live across from 1035 San Pablo Avenue, and I wouldn’t want to. Would you? Would you be ok with these antennas across the street from your home?
Copper Hat January 10, 2012 at 03:37 AM
An EIRP of 12kW sounds awfully large, are you sure you have the correct units?
dgies January 10, 2012 at 03:56 AM
Ed, could you share a link to your source? An individual cell mast should have an EIRP of a couple kW. Also note that EIRP is NOT the same as radiated power. It is the theoretical amount of power that would be radiated if the beam were multiplied to cover all directions. For a typical cell mast EIRP will be many times greater than the true radiated power. It makes no sense to talk about the total EIRP of adding multiple antennas together because they're aimed in different directions. Two 50mph cars is not one 100mph car.
Ed Fields January 10, 2012 at 04:44 AM
“The maximum effective radiated power in any direction would be 5,920 watts, representing simultaneous operation at 1,560 watts for AWS, 1,700 watts for PCS, 1,770 watts for cellular, and 890 watts for 700 MHz service. Presently located on the same building are similar antennas for use by Sprint Nextel….Maximum ERP 1,500 watts.” http://www.albanyca.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=18059 Attachment 7 at: http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?recordid=4934&page=311 Each carrier has three sectors of antennas. This is only for one sector. To get EIRP I multiplied the ERP by 1.64, the gain of a dipole, which is the reference for ERP.
Ed Fields January 10, 2012 at 04:54 AM
That's my understanding of EIRP. The input power multiplied by the directional gain of the antenna. EIRP is used in the calculation of power density at a given distance from the antenna. I figure it's like being hit by both 50mph cars at the same time!
dgies January 10, 2012 at 07:04 AM
Thanks for those links. My point on addition of cell power was that unless they're pointing in the same direction, adding them is meaningless. A key sentence I saw in that attachment was this: "The maximum calculated cumulative level at the top floor elevation of any nearby building is 11% of the public exposure limit." It seems to me if you want to restrict the towers on health reasons, the science is not in your favor.
David Sanger January 10, 2012 at 07:31 AM
Nan, you admit that "AT&T coverage in Albany is poor and AT&T has no sites in Albany." Arguing that it is "because AT&T gave away to T-Mobile the two sites it would have had in Albany" (as required by the FCC) is completely irrelevant. The reason AT&T has such poor coverage TODAY is that their application of May 22, 2008 for a Conditional Use Permit and Design Review has not yet been approved. This is almost four years later. The FCC has indicated that "90 days for processing collocation applications and 150 days for processing applications other than collocations are generally reasonable timeframes" If the application had been approved in a timely basis then we'd have had better service a long time ago
Copper Hat January 10, 2012 at 07:52 AM
Using a simple model (ignoring the 6° down-tilt) suggests that at 43' above ground, the FCC regulations would be met 32' away, and would be at 11% of the exposure limit at 96' away. The nearest tall building is about 100' away, so these numbers seem reasonable (and conservative). I would be more concerned about confirming that the antennae were installed correctly, and that the installation is in compliance with the use permit. Nothing is risk-free. But the 'unknown unknowns' here pose less risk than a dental x-ray or crossing Marin on a daily basis (my opinion).
Nan Wishner January 10, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Hi David, The reason AT&T's application has not yet been approved is that each time AT&T has come before P&Z previously, they have been apprised that their plans for the roof of 1035 San Pablo violate the general zoning code rooftop coverage and height restrictions and that the proposed site is in the last-choice district of the 3 priority-order zoning districts where antennas are allowed in Albany. Each time, AT&T has then taken a year or more to come back with "new" plans that do not address the problem. My guess is that the last delay was because they were hoping the FCC would approve their purchase of T-Mobile, which would give them back the 2 sites in Albany and eliminate the need for this application. The fact that a carrier makes poor choices and refuses to cooperate with the city's reasonable siting requirements but instead simply insists on asking over and over again for the same thing is not a reason for the city to approve a request that violates the code.
dgies January 10, 2012 at 08:55 PM
The 3 zoning districts where antennas are allowed are, in preference order, Commercial Mixed Use (CMX), Public Facilities (PF), and the San Pablo/Solano commercial corridors. AT&T's coverage maps make it pretty obvious the CMX district is too distant to provide meaningful coverage without a gigantic antenna mast. The PF district is basically schools (which are prohibited), and the fire department, which said it can't accept an antenna for interference reasons. AT&T keeps asking to place it in the SC/SPC district because that's the only place that works. The only thing that's left to argue is the zoning/aesthetics of a 20sqft utility closet on top of an office building.
Michael Barnes January 10, 2012 at 09:17 PM
Well, while we are guessing, I'd guess that the 1035 is a good location and AT&T would find it desirable regardless of what happened with the T-Mobile merger. I strongly disagree that the city's siting requirements are reasonable with regards to cell site. They are absurd, and I think former P&Z members like Doug Donaldson agree. In general, it's fair to say the city has been less than cooperative, and bears a good deal of the responsibility for the ridiculous time delays. Perhaps those of use who feel strongly about these issues can work to get them resolved in the next few elections.
Michael Barnes January 10, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Ed, first of all, I have read many of these same RF reports, and I have measured RF emissions at many cell sites locally. I have talked with the RF engineers on how they produce these reports and I can confirm that the reports on FCC limits are based on worst case assumptions. The readings I get are often lower by an order of magnitude (factor of 10x) or more. In addition, according to the American Cancer Society, the walls of a typical house knock down the power by another one or two orders of magnitude. I can confirm that, too. Let me toss your question back to you--If you would not be OK with antennas like this, the ball is in your court to explain why. Given that the power outputs all well below FCC limits, what credible scientific evidence can you give us that we (not you) should be worried? I spend a lot of time perusing the scientific literature, and I just don't understand the bases of your concerns.
Clay Larson January 11, 2012 at 12:56 AM
The situation at the 1035 site seems somewhat unique in that there’s apparently office space on the roof. The structure on the northeast corner appears to be ~50’ from the three proposed east facing antennae. I didn’t find any discussion of this in the EMF report or the Kramer report. The EMF report calculated the maximum cumulative exposure at the top floor of nearby buildings. How about the roof office space of the subject building? If nothing else, I bet the occupants here get good cellphone (AT&T) service.
John Kindle January 11, 2012 at 08:20 AM
Peggy I don't think your question was fully answered by Nan, Who are ARROW's officers and where do they live. Do some of them live out of the Bay Area where Nan lives? I was found it very rude how two members from this group kept interrupting when other members of the public were talking and had to even tell one of them 3 different times to stop trying to talk to me when I was trying to listen to the discussion. I also have not been to any other public meeting were a member of the public was allowed to give a long power point presentation?
John Kindle January 11, 2012 at 08:36 AM
John Doh, as a person in a same sex marriage I find it offensive that you are trying to use my marriage to garner up the politically correct vote on this issue, I or nor anyone else have brought up your marriage.
David Sanger January 11, 2012 at 08:36 AM
This is irrelevant. An application by AT&T must be treated EXACTLY the same as an application by Verizon or Metro PCS irrespective of any past merger activities or previous site licenses. US Code Title 47 5 III Part 1 §332 Mobile Services (c) (7) (B) The regulation of the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities by any State or local government or instrumentality thereof— (I) shall not unreasonably discriminate among providers of functionally equivalent services
David Sanger January 11, 2012 at 08:43 AM
"It's important to note that the predicted distances... are based on a very conservative, “worst case” scenario. In other words, Appendix B identifies the furthest distance from the antenna that presents even a remote realistic possibility of RF exposure that could exceed the FCC guidelines. The power levels are based on the approximate maximum number of channels that an operator is likely to operate at one site. It is further assumed that each channel operates with the maximum power permitted under the FCC’s rules and that all of these channels are “on” simultaneously, an unlikely scenario. This is a very conservative assumption. In reality, most sites operate at a fraction of the maximum permissible power and many sites use fewer than the maximum number of channels. Therefore, actual exposure levels would be expected to be well below the predicted values. Another mitigating factor could be the presence of intervening structures, such as walls, that will reduce RF exposure by variable amounts. For all these reasons, the values given in these tables and graphs are considered to be quite conservative and should over-predict actual exposure levels." http://wireless.fcc.gov/siting/FCC_LSGAC_RF_Guide.pdf
David Sanger January 11, 2012 at 08:58 AM
"the city bearing an unfair burden of permitting new AT&T sites in our community, which already has more cell sites per capita than surrounding cities, to make up for the fact that AT&T had sites here and gave them up." Not true. If 100 wireless operators applied to provide wireless service in Albany the City would have to treat them all fairly and could not exclude them. TITLE 47 > CHAPTER 5 > SUBCHAPTER II > Part II > § 253 REMOVAL OF BARRIERS TO ENTRY "(a) In general No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.
Montgomery Kosma January 11, 2012 at 09:12 AM
It is refreshing to hear so much sane and reasonable commentary, and a very pleasant surprise to have so many people in the community who seem well informed about the law and technology. I spent 10+ years in DC as an antitrust attorney, so while I can knock over the competition law strawmen with my eyes closed, it's great to see others doing the same with the telecom law and technology issues. The way our legal system works, there would be massive fortunes to be made by lawyers if there were anything plausible to the notion that the telcos' placement and operation of cell phone towers could lead to meaningful health risks. If the money-grubbing plaintiffs' bar can't drum up a case, that's strong evidence that there likely isn't one. As for 1035 San Pablo -- I live SUPER close to that area and would be THRILLED to have those antennae put in.


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