The PG&E utility pole on Montrose Road where T-Mobile intends to install antenna equipment.

Lisa Goodman barely registered the rolled-up paper tucked into her door handle on the day before Thanksgiving — promotional flyers of that sort are ubiquitous in the city, after all. But she was alarmed when she read the missive. Addressed to the home-owner, the letter said that construction was slated to begin the following Monday so that T-Mobile could add equipment and wireless antenna to the pole opposite her home on Montrose Road in north Berkeley.

“We tried contacting the City of Berkeley and T-Mobile, but nobody was working as it was the holidays,” Goodman says. “It was very frustrating.” Goodman spoke to neighbors over the weekend, some of whom were concerned about what the new relay station might entail. It was described by T-Mobile as four 18′ by 18′ cabinets attached to the pole with a “shroud” at the top which would contain the antenna and wiring, and extend the height of the pole by about one foot.

Wireless cabinets on a utility pole in San Francisco.

The PG&E pole is on a sidewalk — placed there many years ago when the street was widened — within 50 feet of five homes and 30 feet away from the bedroom window of one of Goodman’s neighbors. Goodman believes the humming noise from the new equipment will be clearly audible from inside the home when the windows are open.

Charles Reichmann received a notification in mid-October that T-Mobile would be installing equipment on a PG&E utility pole near the intersection of Vermont and Maryland Avenues. Reichmann contacted the telecoms company and the City of Berkeley to find out more.

“I was concerned that the procedure for handling these sites was transparent and that the city was observing due process,” he says. “We have to have these antenna and we can’t deny them all, but it’s about time, place and manner,” he says. “The city should be able to decide how they are implemented.”

In fact, when it comes to telecoms companies installing equipment to meet the swelling demand for cellphone coverage — be it microcells like the ones described above, or autonomous cell towers — cities have a limited amount of leverage. The 1996 Telecommunications Act prevents state and local governments from considering health concerns in locating wireless facilities, and the FCC has ruled that the noise they emit falls within allowable decibel levels.

Or, as City Attorney Zach Cowan puts it: “We can’t just say no.” The procedure for microcell installations is governed by Municipal Code Chapter 16.10. “It is the city’s responsibility to ensure the installations are done properly,” Cowan says. “And the Public Utilities Commission oversees the safety aspects.”

So, if there are battles, they are often fought over aesthetics and need.

On Tuesday this week the City Council adopted an ordinance which would allow the City Manager to adopt regulations relating to the design and potentially the noise of microcells — something it had not been able to do until now. Describing the boxes on telephone poles she has seen in Oakland and San Francisco, Councilmember Susan Wengraf said: “They are really very ugly.”

The Council’s emergency law was triggered by the increasing number of applications from telecom companies to put up microcells on public utility poles in the city — and the increasingly vocal sound of residents protesting them.

Kenneth Emeziem, Supervising Engineer for the City of Berkeley told Reichmann in an email exchange that Berkeley had approved 14 such pole-top cellular installations in the city. Along with the two already cited, the other locations were Tunnel Road at Bridge, California at Dwight, Sterling, Del Mar, Spruce at Northampton, Keith at Euclid, Hill at Shasta, Hillside at Dwight, Grizzly Peak at Sunset, Cedar at Juanita, King at Julia, and Santa Fe at Harrison.

Telecom companies are required to send notifications to residents who live within a certain radius of the proposed site — usually 300 ft or 500 ft — and this must be done at least 10 days before construction is due to begin. Reichmann is concerned about this aspect of the process, given that the notice he received asked the public to send comments to the telecoms company. “That troubled me. T-Mobile should not be responsible for collecting public comment when there is a clear conflict of interest,” he says.

Meanwhile, Lisa Goodman has leafleted her neighbors and contacted her Councilmember, Laurie Capitelli, to encourage the community to campaign against what she sees as a potential eyesore on her doorstep.

Goodman stresses, however, that she appreciates that there is a need for expanded coverage. “We are not categorically against the antennas,” she says. “But I love Berkeley and I want it to stay beautiful. I don’t think T-Mobile should be adding blight and noise to neighborhood streets. It’s not right. They have the resources to redesign their equipment and to make it quieter.”

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...