Nearly every teenager alive today has always known the cell phone. There are now more mobile devices in the world than there are people: 8.1 billion gadgets vs 7.5 billion people. And counting. Today, more people own mobile phones than have access to running water or electricity, and to those that have them, their phones have become their single most important possession.
The US Census Bureau recorded that in the last half of 2016, the percentage of households with only mobile phone service crested 50% for the first time.
Cell Sites are All Around
The infrastructure that provides all that radio/cell coverage began in earnest in the early 90s, and now, most people in their normal lives rarely lose contact with at least one cell tower.
And they are everywhere, these antennas, increasingly hiding in plain sight disguised as pine and palm trees, or just painted the same color as the wall it’s mounted to. Most people don’t even notice them. A town’s water tower is often surrounded by antennas, as well as the nearby highest hilltops and roofs of buildings.
Are Cell Towers Dangerous?
Telecom industry giant, Ericsson, has noted that by 2020, 90% of the global population will be in range to at least one cell site, and 70% of those people will be using a smartphone. But is it safe?
The radio signal that makes it all work is technically microwave radiation — which sounds bad, sounds like too much of that and we’ll have another Godzilla on our hands.
But as this chart illustrates, the radio waves streaming to and from our cell phones are in the UHF (ultra-high frequency) range that includes TV and FM broadcasts, which has been widely transmitted over the planet for over fifty years with no known ill effects, so drawing a clear line from this microwave radiation to personal injury is difficult.
Spiderman is only possible somewhere to the far right of the chart in the radioactive gamma ray region, which is beyond X-ray.
Radio Frequency Exposure
Each modern smartphone transmits and receives at a power of around 1.5 watts, which has been considerably dialed back by regulation (and innovation) from the earliest 5 watt phones. And the only possible danger from ultra-high frequencies would be from extreme concentrations, such as being unusually close to an antenna broadcasting at a power designed to cover an area of possibly miles.
Standing right in front of an antenna like that would subject a person to a concentration of power — and just as the name implies, a person would be “microwaved.” Still, most antennas transmit at a power typically set between 5 and 10 watts, which is much less than is used to “nuke” a potato. Antennas are also typically installed high, like on rooftops, and are generally hard to get close to.
A standard microwave oven produces around 700 watts of energy.
Nonetheless, the general symptoms for RF exposure include:
- inability to think clearly
These symptoms are similar to sun exposure, as RF exposure is essentially (and eerily) a sunburn on one’s inside.
Danger to Cell Tower Workers
If anyone is in danger of personal injury by RF burns, it would be the cell tower workers who climb to sometimes astonishing heights to repair equipment. On top of that, they are subject to workplace injuries and high fatality rates from falls. Fatal cell tower accidents are surprisingly common and are frequently investigated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — when they’ve been properly reported.
OSHA has found that fatal falls can be the result of hazardous conditions like poor tower design, faulty equipment, and lack of proper training. Workers are encouraged to hurry to meet tight deadlines and forget to take proper care, and may even “free climb” without a harness.
Because there are typically several layers of contracting between the communications company and the workers, it can be hard to assign liability for a cell tower accident or wrongful death case.
Roseville Opposes Cell Site Spread
Roseville, Rocklin, and other California cities oppose Bill 649, which would require cities to allow small cell phone towers on public land. The cities say that it strips local governments of power to control construction in their areas — including on local properties such as city parks, even though the first line of the bill “Reaffirms local governments’ historic role and authority with respect to communications infrastructure siting and construction generally.”
While the essence of Senate Bill 649 appears to be an effort to unify regulatory systems statewide — rather than relying on thousands of idiosyncratic city and county planning commission rules — the physical part of the bill covers issues related to public property antenna placement, including: stadiums, parks, campuses, hospitals, transit stations, and public buildings.
The bill would also grant cell service providers such as AT&T and Verizon “fair, reasonable, nondiscriminatory, and nonexclusive access” to locally owned utility and street light poles.
AT&T predicted in 2016 that “small cells will make up the substantial majority of their future cell tower and cell site development over the next 5 years.” Any base station, or cell site, can generally be described as an antenna and loose handful of electrical components that phones radio to and from, communicating to the world.
And newer, smaller technology has produced a mini-station capability such as one built by Extenet, designed to be mounted on light poles, that work particularly well for crowded downtown areas with tall buildings. There is a current installation underway of 400 “nodes” in San Francisco by Verizon, while similar projects are underway in Houston and New York City.
The wireless industry has always been moving toward miniaturization and powering down, using these smaller footprint antennas to better cover targeted areas.
The unspoken heart of the opposition, though, seems to be financial.
The cities opposing the bill currently enjoy lease rates of up to $2,000 per site location, and the bill would cap the rate statewide to $250. This rate cap is an acknowledgment that California coverage forecasts are predicting 30,000 to 50,000 antenna installations will be required in the state over the next five to seven years, and that ”…telecommunications facilities in the rights-of-way is a matter of statewide concern.”
Injury Victims Have Hope
But safety is also a concern. If you’ve lost a loved one to wrongful death, suffered a personal injury, or sustained property damage due to negligence, don’t hesitate to contact us for a free consultation.