When a Network is a Notwork

By Ken Allen

As much as I love its features, I donÕt own an iPhone.  Yet IÕve used it and had nearly every type of mobile gadget since mobile radio was invented, long before the invention of cell systems.  But I drew the line with the iPhone and iPad.  Why?

Where I live in Palo Alto, cellular service is the wireless equivalent of a giant pothole on every other block.  iPhone cell service is so bad in my neighborhood that people stand in the street just to make a call, and when neighbors sell their homes, they have to disclose that certain cellular services are not available.  Whenever such cell phones do get a weak signal, sound quality is scratchy, calls are spotty or dropped, web pages and email fail to load, and texting is incredibly slow.  If mobile communication is to become a minimum essential function, service must improve!

There is a rule I learned while serving on the Cable Co-op Board, our pioneering two-way cable system:  bandwidth demand increases to fill capacity, no matter the service.  There was a time when all televisions were wireless and telephones were wired.  But today it is reversed:  Over one in four households in the US donÕt have any landline telephone, with no foreseeable end to the trend.  Yet Palo Alto lags the national trend.

This town is the bane of cell service providers.  ItÕs not all their fault they canÕt keep up with the demand.  It seems that some in Palo Alto are more concerned about appearance and emissions than general need.  Now that virtually everyone has a cell phone, itÕs about time we allow providers to install the equipment needed to feed our insatiable demand for small size and great convenience. 

We have been wallowing in a sea of radio waves for over a century, bathing as it were in emissions from everything from microwave ovens to wireless routers to flat-panel televisions.  No one has ever drowned in radio waves.  Consider that even the most powerful cell tower produces a signal equivalent to a couple of home light bulbs.  The signal of a cell phone next to the ear is typically about 25,000 times more powerful than the signal received from a cell tower at a hundred yards, and cell phone output power gets automatically boosted with increased distance.  

For those who still might have reservations, there is a solution particularly suited for residential service:  outdoor microcells IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS.  One provider, AT&T, has proposed a system called DAS for Distributed Antenna System.  The DAS-style antennas themselves are about two feet high on top of existing utility poles, with back-up batteries and equipment in slim boxes along the poles.  The transmitters have the power of a Christmas tree light.  The boxes connect to the service backbone.  More antennas mean less need for cell phone power. 

So why all the fuss now?  I acknowledge the concerns of those raising questions about the proliferation of antennas on existing utility poles.  But poles are needed anyway.  Besides, our town has had pole-mounted radio services for decades that have bothered no one.  Most people havenÕt ever noticed the Ricochet boxes on light poles or the disguised trees and flag poles at the edges of our neighborhoods.  And DAS antennas are already found on the Stanford campus. 

A similar unobtrusive set-up in residential areas of Palo Alto makes sense.  We cannot, in a city of inherently connected people, allow cell phone coverage to continue to degrade.  We need cell sites at the edges of our neighborhoods, and we can benefit from mini relay stations where coverage is weak, especially as demand saturates existing services.

While it might be annoying not to connect via cell phone to family, a reliable high-quality wireless signal is essential for many businesses.  Ford Motor Company for example, recently removed all of its landlines at its Michigan headquarters and gave out 8000 cell phones to staff.  As wired service is supplanted (just try to find a phone booth), reliable wireless connection with first responders in an emergency becomes critical. 

I think itÕs great the community is providing input on DAS.  It should lead to a reasonable compromise solution.  While not everyone will be perfectly satisfied, at the end of the day, the ÒpotholesÓ must be filled.  I hope the City and community can come together quickly to approve and support the installation of these antennas. 

I urge your support.  Call the City Council and Chief Planner Russ Reich to show your support—if you can get a connection!  Better yet, send an email (Russ.Reich@CityofPaloAlto.org). 


Kenneth R. Allen, a long-time Palo Alto resident, is an electrical engineer and patent attorney at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, where he has worked with inventors of both broadcast and two-way radio systems.  He is president of the Adobe Meadow Neighborhood Association, a CERT volunteer and a County Disaster Service Worker.  As such he has had to rely on wireless communication in major disasters such as the Loma Prieta earthquake.  The opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his firm or of his neighborhood association.