By Midge Pierce

A highwire balancing act over a wireless technology upgrade has SE residents rights to protect their property facing off against a telecommunications company’s proposal to replace a 42 foot utility pole at Yamhill and 71st with a 58 foot pole carrying a wireless transmitter. The situation weighs citizens’ desires to protect their property against a telecommunications company’s aspirations to serve and grow its customer base.

Residents raised environmental and health concerns during a high tension informational meeting April 20 as T-Mobile representatives claimed that a transmitter at this location is needed because of increased demand for high speed data transmission capability. The proposal is part of a company wide $4 billion 4G (fourth generation) upgrade.

The presentation teetered as residents asked each other whether they wanted the upgrade or were even T-Mobile customers.  Only four hands in the packed TaborSpace dining room were raised. When pressed, company representatives declined to indicate how many T-Mobile clients would actually benefit from the upgrade.

“We don’t hear a need,” shouted one resident as citizens waved signs about corporate greed and protecting children’s growing bodies. “This doesn’t help us since most of us don’t have T-Mobile anyway. The signals we get now are just fine.”

While cell towers are not permitted in residential areas, wireless extensions are allowed on utility poles located in public rights of way.  A wireless carrier has basic legal authority to place antennas to fill a coverage gap, according to Jennifer Li, program manager at Portland’s  Office of Community Technology (OCT).

Under federal law, no state or local government can prohibit wireless service in any area where a carrier is licensed. Moreover, federal law prohibits cities from considering health impacts on wireless permit decisions.

Yet, health issues were center stage as citizens pressed for assurance that frequency waves would not endanger homes or a nearby school. Citizens raised concerns about electrical sensitivities, chromosomal breakdowns and breaks in the DNA of cells and the propensity of electromagnetic fields to cause brain tumors.

Andrew Thatcher, a health physicist hired by T-Mobile, downplayed links between mobile base stations and cancer. Comparing extremely low frequency magnetic fields (ELF) to that of TV, radio waves and even a baby monitor, Thatcher held that a mobile base station is less impactful than mobile phone use.

Residents countered that they can control their cellphones but not the transmitter. An oncologist specializing in brain cancer, commented on long-term, cumulative effects that could push exposure over acceptable thresholds.

[While the relationship between transmitter emissions and phone use may not be direct, meeting handouts showed that mobile phone use is classified as possibly carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Studies are ongoing to assess long-term effects.

The longer lifetime exposure of mobile phones to young people is of particular concern, although texting and holding phones away from the body may decrease the risks to the brain. The most consistently observed biological effect from mobile phone exposure is the interruption of sleep.]

Radio talk show host Paul Cienfuegos called the federal law restricting elected officials from considering the human or environmental health impact of the proposed tower an abomination. “It’s a dramatic example of corporate ‘rights’ trumping the rights of We the People.”

With healthcare considerations off the table, it may be difficult for residents to stop the antenna. Still, T-mobile has backed away from options on Mt. Tabor in the past, most recently from a project at 69th St. where a number of homes are eligible for historic designation.

OCT representative Li said Portland’s Broadband Strategic Plan recognizes broadband networks as infrastructures fundamental to Portland’s future. She says the majority of 911 calls are now made via wireless. Two out of five Americans have dropped their landlines completely.

In a written statement, Li elaborated:  “As the technology is mobile, access to the technology has very little to do with demand or interest in any particular neighborhood. It has far more to do with the right and ability of the carrier to provide an adequate signal to mobile users wherever those users happen to be in the service area, regardless of neighborhood.

‘Reliable wireless access depends upon signal availability. Increasing numbers of wireless users, wireless devices, and data traffic means more antennas are necessary to provide reliable signals.”

So what happens next? T-Mobile must wait 30 days before submitting its application.  The application will be reviewed first by OCT. If verified, it is forwarded to the Portland Bureau of Transportation for processing, review and decision-making.