Bolinas exploring request to modify AT&T tower

07/25/2018

The telecommunications company AT&T is hoping to expand its bandwidth in Bolinas, where nine panel antennas overlook the fire station offering a relatively weak cellular signal. To move forward, AT&T must modify its lease with the Bolinas Fire Protection District, which has held a contract with the company since 1997. 

The lease stipulates that radio frequency wave levels would not exceed 10 percent of a baseline established in 2015, which is under 3 percent of the total Federal Communications Commission’s limit. 

Now, AT&T is hoping to increase levels to 18.4 percent of the total F.C.C. limit. The proposal would remove and replace nine panel antennas and six remote radio units, and install nine new remote radio units. Although there hasn’t been public opposition to the proposal, the district board decided to defer the request, which AT&T made in April, while board members explore the impacts. 

According to board president David Kimball, the percentage is based on a computer model of the maximum possible radiofrequency emissions, and inevitably overestimates actual levels. 

In order to track emissions, the lease stipulates that AT&T must send a technician up to four times a year, when the board requests it, in order to monitor the RF wave levels in real time. The goal, according to Mr. Kimball, is to “provide some transparency for the people that are concerned.”

Fire Chief Anita Tyrrell-Brown added, “There used to be vocal opposition to RF waves, but we haven’t had anyone present at meetings.” 

In May, the board voted to table the request, and appointed Chief Tyrrell-Brown and board president David Kimball to continue conversations with AT&T. 

“They are very responsive when we say we need to review the request for modifications carefully for our public,” the fire chief said. AT&T’s agreement in Bolinas is a financial staple for the district, providing $126,000 this fiscal year—around 17 percent of its annual budget. (The lease grows by 6 percent a year.) 

“If the cell sites were to ever go away, the community would have to have a serious discussion of how to make up the budget,” Chief Tyrrell-Brown said. 

Even if the board decided against the proposed expansion—which AT&T said is based on customer service and customer needs—it may not be able to block it. According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, communities cannot deny the installation of cell phone towers based on a perceived health concern, as long as wireless companies follow F.C.C. regulations. 

“There are a lot of people out there that dispute that and think F.C.C. limits are too high, but they’re not in a position to challenge that because, in past court cases, no one has really been successful against these large companies,” Chief Tyrrell-Brown said.