The global pandemic has taught us some hard lessons about our strengths and weaknesses as a society. It has also transformed our core models: we’ve moved to remote work, distance learning, and a distributed workforce – trends that are unlikely to be reversed. A very important lesson, therefore, has been the critical importance of connectivity.
Cellular broadband was a lifeline during quarantine, preserving our ties to our loved ones, enabling commerce and, perhaps more importantly, allowing learning to continue. Students abruptly switched to distance education in March 2020, but without adequate coverage in residential neighborhoods this would not have been possible. For students whose wired broadband was either inadequate, expensive, or nonexistent, school districts provided 4G hotspots. Of the 16,000 connections created by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, 14,200 came through 4G hotspots. But these hot spots are useless if there is no wireless coverage.
Our state and national leaders understand that robust connectivity is essential to the future growth of our country and that connectivity will enable and enhance countless new technologies and services, driving economic growth and prosperity. President Joe Biden’s administration infrastructure plan proposes $ 65 billion for broadband, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has included $ 9 billion for broadband in his proposed budget.
Unfortunately, Palo Alto has adopted rather onerous standards for small wireless installations – also known as small cells – putting an end to the expansion of modern communications infrastructure in our city.
Current municipal rules have the effect of banning wireless infrastructure along 73% of city streets. Rather than encouraging improved infrastructure, the city’s rules seem designed to make its construction as difficult as possible. In fact, not a single small wireless facility was approved in Palo Alto during the pandemic.
Cellular communication is increasingly the technology of choice for connectivity. Over 60% of homes in the western United States use wireless only, as people increasingly switch from landline phones to mobile phones. Eighty percent of calls to 911 emergency services are made from cell phones. Clearly, strong home cellular coverage is essential for economic equality and public safety.
Next-generation wireless supports more than faster smartphones. It will provide Palo Alto homes and small businesses with access to gigabit-class Internet access, providing an affordable alternative to broadband cable, DSL and fiber optics.
Naturally, many objections to small wireless installations focus on concerns about electromagnetic health effects, negative impacts on residential property ratings, or aesthetics. But the truth is, these concerns have been systematically addressed: Thousands of peer-reviewed studies on the health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have found no evidence of harm when wireless installations operate within EU guidelines. the Federal Communications Commission – as they must by law. Objective studies of real estate appraisals have found no economic impact.
As the owner of Palo Alto, I share people’s legitimate concerns about aesthetics. Fortunately (and by law), local governments are responsible for setting reasonable aesthetic requirements. I have no doubts that Palo Alto applies the principles of protection in a way that always allows for strong signals. In this, it’s good to see us learning from cities like San Diego, San Jose, and Fremont, all of which maintain helpful (and detailed) installation guidelines for small cell infrastructure.
Palo Alto’s policies must reflect current realities and establish reasonable implementation standards that contribute to, without impeding, our access to information. Our city – the birthplace of so many notable tech companies – can cede an outsized voice to a noisy minority, to the detriment of progress.
In reality, we are not looking for a Solomonic choice here. Palo Alto can deploy the best technology, allow science to play its central role, while honoring the importance of aesthetics. I hope we will keep the big picture and develop policies that allow for this critical infrastructure.