Almost every week, the city of Berkeley’s Public Works Department publishes a list of scheduled construction work, to give people a heads-up on projects around town.

For the week of Aug. 3, for example, a number of sewer, sidewalk, storm drain and street repair projects are on the list. Some of those projects are there for the first time. Others are ongoing longer term projects.

Among the latter are two AT&T small cell antenna installations, one at 1321 Gilman St. and the other at 1150 Hopkins St.

These projects have been on the city’s construction schedule week after week for months but still aren’t built. What gives?

It may have something to do with a small but dedicated group of local residents who are opposed to wireless cell technology, primarily for what they consider health reasons. These Berkeley residents closely monitor the sites where work is proposed and as soon as they see workers approaching, they send out texts and emails calling on fellow activists to show up. Then they picket the site (fully masked, these days), chant, hold vigils and try and make it difficult for workers to do their jobs. They even sit on the poles to block access.

“We’ve been protecting this pole for six months,” said Elizabeth Starr, who has been protesting at the 1321 Gilman site. “We don’t want the radiation here, it’s so harmful.”

Starr, and many of the other protesters, are members of Wired, a Berkeley anti-wireless group leading the actions, which they call nonviolent civil disobedience. And so far, they seem to have an impact.

Workers get frustrated, Starr said, there’s been some swearing and, at least once, the police were called. But the workers have never pushed through the protesters to complete their job. They pack up and leave.

“Reps of AT&T (work crews in trucks) have come to install antennas at Gilman location three times, and at Hopkins one time so far,” said Soula Culver. “They left upon meeting peaceful demonstrators on-site.”

The first Gilman protest was on April 18. “We tried to have someone posted there ever since then,” Culver said.

When asked by Berkeleyside for an interview about the small cell sites,  AT&T responded by email: “We are installing two new small cell sites in the City of Berkeley to enhance service for our customers, including first responders. For each of these sites, we received the necessary permits and went through the City’s approval process,” said Megan Daly, AT&T lead public relations manager.

When asked if the company had a strategy for the protestors, Daly didn’t respond.

Small cell antenna protesters keep vigil over approved installation sites to block work. Photo: Cynthia Papermaster

The approved small cell antenna are designed for 4G and, eventually, 5G technologies. Other telecommunications companies, including Verizon, have also been adding small cell capacity to Berkeley. The small antennas, usually placed on power poles, buildings, or other existing infrastructure, can transmit more data faster than older technologies. Because they’re smaller, it takes more of them to provide coverage than larger, taller cell towers.

The main difference between 5G over 4G are faster speeds, higher bandwidth and less lag time between devices and servers.

5G signals using higher frequency bandwidth can’t travel as far as those traveling on lower bandwidth, and can’t easily penetrate hard or thick surfaces such as walls, windows or power poles. This translates to a need for more antennas installed closer together.

5G networks using millimeter-wave frequencies will require small towers every few blocks instead of every few miles, which some people fear will increase exposure to cell tower radiation.

Regardless of type or size, wireless construction in Berkeley tends to bring out ardent critics, along with fervent fans.

Many of those opposed to 4G and 5G networks fear that the radiation emitted from antennas can cause cancer. Cell construction also brings complaints about aesthetics, noise and blocked views. Opponents cite studies done by the EMF Safety Network, an international group of experts with local members, which link electromagnetic fields and wireless radiation (EMFs) to health problems.

In addition, members of Berkeley’s Wired think the cell sites sink nearby property values, and that wireless information is easily hacked.

“We advocate for hard-wired copper landlines and fiber optic broadband as the primary robust and reliable communication networks that many residents need every day, and that are especially needed in emergencies,” reads the Wired website.

5G’s need for more antennas is especially concerning, said Phoebe Anne Sorgen, a wireless opponent and member of Wired. “5G is 4G on steroids,” she said.

Supporters of 4G and 5G technology, including most governments and telecommunications organizations, say those views are not backed by science and may even be considered fringe. This includes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO, however, also calls for more 5G research.

Sidewalk chalk spells out protesters’ opposition to ongoing cell antenna installation at protest site on Hopkins Street. Photo: Cynthia Papermaster

Berkeley has limited say in telecommunications decisions

Cities like Berkeley have limited say in decisions around telecommunications equipment, which is regulated by the federal Federal Communications Commission. Cities can’t base permitting decisions on health or environmental impacts. They also can’t discriminate among providers or make decisions in a manner that effectively prohibits wireless service.

Berkeley recently updated its telecommunications ordinance covering construction in public rights of way (PROW), such as on existing utility poles, to jibe with updated federal regulations. In 2018, the FCC adopted revised rules to make broadband easier and less expensive.

The city used the opportunity for a few other updates and clarifications. The revisions aren’t major but include requiring annual proof of the necessity for coverage, setting undergrounding as a priority if possible (except for antennas), stating that the ordinance provides no authority for facial recognition or surveillance technology, requiring noise testing on-site rather than relying on manufacturer’s written guarantees  — and more.

The city has more say in telecommunications equipment on private property. This includes enforcing height limits, noise limits, requiring screening or camouflaging, requiring locations with the least negative neighborhood impacts and proof that other sites have been explored.

This came to the forefront recently in another wireless event for the city. In early July, the City Council upheld a Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) denial of a Verizon application to install a 50 ft 4G cell tower at Berryman Reservoir, on EBMUD property. The council, agreeing with ZAB, said Verizon hadn’t adequately explored sites with fewer aesthetic impacts on neighbors and hadn’t proven the need for the tower to provide coverage.

“Fantastic, and not unexpected,” said Sorgen.

Sorgen, Starr and others will continue trying to block construction of the small cell antennas on Gilman and Hopkins, they said.

Workers replace an old power pole while protesters demonstrate against a planned small cell antenna installation. Photo: Cynthia Papermaster

AT&T has done some work in these areas, replacing the old power pole on Gilman, but no antenna yet.

On Hopkins recently, Cynthia Papermaster, a member of the contingent, said: “[AT&T  did show up for installation one morning around 7:30 a.m. Maeve was there, called me and I came over, and then more people started arriving and we prevented them from doing any work by going inside of the barricades that they had set up around the pole.”

Papermaster noted that she believes the Hopkins address in the city’s construction schedule is wrong.

“We didn’t struggle with them, they spoke to us very little. They retreated and appeared to be meeting, possibly getting instructions from higher-ups, then after about an hour, came back and removed the barriers and left.”

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...