Fiber-Optic Illusion

Why Tom Ammiano's plans to create a city-owned broadband network are a boondoggle-in-the-making

But he's talking about cell phone towers.

An inquisitive foreigner arriving in San Francisco and wanting to understand how city government works would need to arm herself with only this fact: A tiny band of paranoid people who hold the unsubstantiated belief that corporations are altering their children's brains with radio signals from the sky have frightened legislators into worsening San Francisco's digital future.

A typical example of such noxious "activism" is Noe Valley Families, a group of self-appointed medical theorists formed six years ago to overturn an agreement between a church, Noe Valley Ministry, and a couple of cell phone companies to install antennae in the church's steeple.

There have been studies, all inconclusive, examining possible effects that radio-frequency radiation emitting from cell phones may have on people's brains. But these studies look at the theoretical harm that may or may not be caused by putting a cell phone receiver next to your ear. The amount of radiation reaching people's bodies from cell phone broadcast antennae is far less significant. It's less than the amount one would encounter while walking by a house with an operating garage door opener.

Nonetheless, Tom Ammiano -- like his colleagues, loath to let a local constituent group go unpandered to -- took up the cause of Noe Valley Families, and the church and the cell phone companies canceled their antenna plan.

Given that cell phones barely work in the city -- mine drops calls 100 yards from Sutro Tower, the massive antenna sprouting from the saddle between Mount Sutro and Twin Peaks -- cell phone companies have continued to seek permits for additional antennae. Ever ready to please vociferous individual constituents, no matter how unreasonable, Ammiano proposed a resolution that would have imposed a citywide moratorium on such antennae.

Fortunately, in drafting the Telecommunications Act of 1996, federal legislators envisioned the political threat of quack theories about the effects of cell phone radiation and made it illegal for communities to ban antennae based on perceptions about health threats. Undaunted, the Board of Supervisors ordered the city legislative analyst's office to study how San Francisco government might get around this law.

With the help of advice from the City Attorney's Office and other relevant bureaucracies, city analyst Adam Van de Water a year ago submitted a lengthy report showing ways this wasn't practical. As it happens, thwarting cell phone antennae can be done easily enough on a case-by-case basis. Step 1: The Planning Commission approves an antenna, based on a 30-page book of guidelines. Next: A neighborhood group appeals the decision to the Board of Supervisors. Third: The supes vote the antenna down.

"And seven out of the last seven times this has happened, the board has sided with the neighbors," Van de Water says.

Although there's scarcely a politician in the city who'll say it, the only real way to repair San Francisco's zany, ineffective process for addressing problems -- a process that bows before silly localized concerns and ignores important citywide needs -- is to get rid of district elections.

At a press conference earlier this month, Ammiano and other politicians touted a city-owned fiber-optic system as a way to close the digital divide between the rich who have high-speed Internet access and the poor who often don't even have computers.

But in the mind of Telecommunications Commission Vice President Daluvoy, who previously worked with the Federal Communications Commission formulating policies to promote the deployment of broadband networks, the best hope for creating citywide Internet access that doesn't rely on SBC or Comcast is a technology called fixed wireless. Fixed wireless depends on a cell phone receiver stationed permanently in the home. Such a receiver would function in the same way as the home phone lines that now carry high-speed DSL service.

"Look at the transportation analogy, in which you have freeways, boulevards, and small streets going to homes. We have a tremendous amount of fiber already in what you could refer to as the freeways, even in the boulevards. Where you don't have capacity is the narrow streets to the home. That's where the shortage is," Daluvoy says. "The quickest way to fill that capacity to that part of the roads is to go wireless."

The cellular telephone industry realizes this. And all major national cellular carriers are currently creating wireless broadband service, which extends cellular phone networks to high-speed Internet access. AT&T Wireless began offering such a service two months ago in the South Bay, with plans for other cities nationwide.

But thanks to the legacy of Ammiano and his fellow supervisors, San Francisco may remain one of the few cities where this cellular technology is not a viable option to SBC and Comcast.

Because to have increased cellular service, you need more cellular antennae, and you can't have more cellular antennae if you're going to quaver in fear before small neighborhood groups that believe -- but have absolutely no evidence -- that cell phone radio waves emitted from these antennae harm children's brains.

In the area of cable-based broadband, local telephone service, and television, a company called RCN Telecom Services Inc. has been struggling for three years to provide an alternative to Comcast and SBC in some of San Francisco's southeastern neighborhoods. Battling giants isn't easy. Earlier this year the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, from which it hopes to emerge next year.

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