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Point of View: Can You Hear Me Now

Posted on 29 May 2011

By Lawrence LaRose


In a day and age when many people feel cell phone coverage is a constitutional right, I feel like a bit of an anomaly. Living in North Haven, I have adequate coverage at my house, though sometimes have a dropped call in other places of the village. Honestly, I don’t care. Many people I’ve spoken with don’t care either; they embrace the rural nature of our hamlet and are happy to say “call me on my landline.”

That said, I would not presume tell others that they should not care about their cellular service. Perhaps they want to ditch their landlines, engage in business out of doors, or watch Hulu in the Hot Tub. Who knows? Similarly, I would hope those who want the best coverage possible would not presume to tell me not to care about our beautiful natural environment in North Haven. Ours is a rural beauty that decades of Trustees have guarded assiduously. Now, the majority of our village trustees want to throw all that away and erect a 140-foot cell tower.

So in the interest of improving cellular coverage and preserving the rural character of North Haven, are there options other than a 140-foot cell tower? Most certainly, and better ones. For one, AT&T is offering free MicroCells to customers in low coverage areas. A MicroCell works as a signal extender, boosting your broadband connection to a new 3G connection within your home for very good coverage.

But some may want a more comprehensive solution and there is one that will not forever besmirch the skyscape of North Haven. How do I know? Because I spoke with Camille Rose, a Selectman in Aquinnah, Massachussets – a 5-square mile teardrop of land on Martha’s Vineyard that had poor cell phone reception. When a cellular company approached a local church to place a tower in its steeple, the 311 local residents were in an uproar. Rose studied the situation and put out an RFP for a different technology called a Distributed Antenna System, or DAS. Aquinnah was initially offered $125,000 per cellular carrier on the network, plus a cut of the yearly revenue. While that rate was reduced after the economic downturn, Rose was nonetheless thrilled that Aquinnah would get better reception and a nice revenue stream while maintaining the historic look and feel of her coastal town.

What is DAS? It is a series of nodes that are placed on top of existing telephone poles. There is a box 36 inches high and 18 inches in diameter – similar to some that you already see on poles – and whip antenna a few feet high above them. Rose was told by the cellular company that these would be placed every half-mile to mile to carry the signal. I admitted this sounded great but asked her how the DAS system compared in terms of Radio Frequency (RF) and Microwave (MW) radiation, knowing that a traditional cellular pole emits radiation many times greater than average microwave oven. She said the radiation level was virtually non-existent, as the levels from sector-type antennas are very low.

I wanted to know how this could be and learned that a typical cell tower transmits at 150 watts, a DAS node transmits at 20 watts. To put this in perspective, your handheld device transmits at ½ watt or less.

Wanting to know more, I spoke with Michael Whitley at Extenet Systems, a neutral host provider that creates networks for cellular companies to utilize. He explained that towers are the fastest and cheapest solution for cellular companies. The proposed 140-foot tower can transmit for 10 miles or more. Given that North Haven is only 2.7 square miles, it struck me as a massive overbuild that exploits us more than serves us. He also said that DAS “is a better long term play,” because “proximity is the name of the game; just as household WiFi is great near the base station, and increasingly bad as you move away from it, a DAS system has better data thru-put because the distributed nodes are closer to you.” He also characterized DAS as a more forward-thinking technology, as the closer proximity to nodes is better for data hungry devices like iPads, wireless Kindles, and tablet computers.

Mr. Whitley also explained that data transfer is a two-way street: a tall tower may be able to get to you, but your phone signal must also get to it. When a tower is far from you, your cell phone needs to power up to communicate with the tower. In effect, the phone zaps your brain at a greater rate, raising your temperature and, less severely, draining your battery faster.

The medical community is not agreed on the effects of RF and MW radiation that result from cell phone towers. Some doctors assert that “it is worse than smoking cigarettes.” Others say that there is no effect at all. I’m not a neuro-toxicologist, but common sense would dictate that the answer is somewhere in between: if these signals can pass through solid walls and two inches into your brain, there has to be some sort of electro-chemical response. There is no conclusive longitudinal evidence proving the technology safe. And that is just the point: No one knows. We are living in an enormous medical experiment. In light of this, wouldn’t it be prudent to pursue a course that adopts the least radiation, not the most? Shouldn’t our trustees protect our citizens rather than exploit them for financial gain?

Often a cellular company will say is that it is too difficult to install a DAS system, or that it will take too long – but that is their profit and loss statement speaking. Yes, it is more expensive, for them. Sure, that might result in less revenue for North Haven, but it will protect something priceless: our natural habitat. We should insist on a cellular solution that both serves and protects North Haven, and a DAS solution would do that. The comparatively negligible aesthetic burden would be shared by all, and cell phone service will be improved with tomorrow’s technology, not yesterday’s. In short, a DAS solution will offer better coverage, an expandable network, better data thru-put, and less zappage.

If you’re still in doubt, just watch the current AT&T ad, which brags about how they are building the best cellular network possible while showing cityscapes covered with leaves and flowers to demonstrate the reach of their radioactive waves. Over buildings, streets, fields, bridges, parks — even the Seattle Space Needle — the foliage cascades over horizons in beautiful seamless coverage. Conspicuously absent throughout the whole ad: a cell phone tower. Clearly, everyone agrees the sight of one would ruin the landscape.

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One Response to “Point of View: Can You Hear Me Now”

  1. jane says:

    I totally hear you now and I completely agree. Over the years, too many charming attractions have fallen prey to revenue generating schemes out here on the East End. I couldn’t care less if no one can reach me. Actually, it is my fantasy!


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