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July 12, 2004

Small antennas planned to improve cell phone reception on campus

By Louise Donahue

Cell phone users frustrated by poor reception on campus may be getting some help, thanks to an unusual public-private partnership.

The campus community is invited to attend an informational meeting about the microcell project at noon on August 12 in Conference Room D of the Bay Tree Building.

UCSC telecommunications manager Ed Titus said the new antennas would be linked to land lines at the Communications Building via UCSC's fiber optic lines.
Photo: Louise Donahue

UCSC is working with Milpitas-based NextG Networks to augment the three existing cell phone transmission antennas north of Crown College with several microcellular antennas.

The project is designed to provide coverage to residence halls and apartments as well as Science Hill and the base of campus.

Six microcellular antennas are expected to be installed at Porter College, College Eight, Cowell College, Science Hill, and at the base of the campus with additional antennas to be added later, if needed.

UCSC's wooded and hilly terrain makes cell phone reception a challenge, because cell phone signals travel primarily in a "line of sight" mode.

Efforts are being made to locate the antennas in the least obtrusive places possible, and UCSC telecommunications manager Ed Titus has been meeting with representatives of the affected colleges about where the antennas would go. The microcellular antennas are generally placed in an enclosure resembling a smokestack, and the entire unit is no more than six feet tall.

"The microcells are much smaller, and much lower power, but they are also lower in range," said Titus. Because of these limitations, the antennas would be linked to land lines at the Communications Building via UCSC's fiber optic lines.

One antenna is proposed for the Cowell College Academic Building.

"NextG will not charge us to install these antenna sites," said Titus. "In fact, they will pay us for the fiber optic circuits they use. If we wanted to do this on our own, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Once the system is established, cell phone vendors would be expected to lease equipment space in the Communications Building, bringing in additional revenue, he said.

NextG has exclusive rights to market the campus network and has already signed up Cingular. A key benefit of the arrangement is that it could serve multiple cell-phone vendors, avoiding the problem of having separate antennas to serve each vendor, Titus explained.

NextG Networks, which describes itself as a “next-generation” wireless communications company, specializes in installing small antennas “in places where aesthetics are important, but cell phone coverage is terrible,” said Titus.

“This would be a big boon for the westside,” said Titus. “We get calls from parents, and some students e-mail me each month wanting to know our progress on this.”

While those involved in the project see many advantages for the campus, they also want to give members of the campus community an opportunity to air any concerns and ask questions. A public meeting will be held at noon on August 12 at Conference Room D of the Bay Tree Building.

In the past, efforts to add large transmitters have prompted concerns about radiation and the potential for the system to interfere with research equipment. The use of smaller transmitters—35 watts as opposed to 1,500 watts—may ease that concern, but everyone involved is encouraging input.

“The project will not go ahead until all the bases have been covered,” said project manager Courtney Grazian of Physical Planning and Construction. Grazian said the Planning Department, and its Environmental Assessment Group, will review the location of the antennas.

“We want to make certain that the campus community is very aware of what’s going on,” said Ken Smith, radiation safety officer for Environmental Health and Safety. “Everyone’s got a different take on this.”

Allowable levels of exposure to radio frequency radiation are set by the Federal Communications Commission, with one standard for the public and another for workers. The level of allowable public exposure to transmitters is about five times less than the occupational level, Titus said. The microcellular antennas planned for UCSC are designed to emit less than 1 percent of that lower allowable public exposure level, Titus said.

Despite the low levels, the campus Radiation Safety Committee will review the project as an additional precaution because of the proximity to residences. Ordinarily, the committee does not review projects unless they reach the threshold of 10 percent of the allowable public exposure level. Environmental Health and Safety will also review NextG’s reports on radio frequency exposure to be sure everything checks out, Smith said.

“Once they get the information, most people are assured they’re safe,” said Smith. “I’d rather see this model than a large transmitter.”

Additional information

Several web sites include background on radio frequencies and related issues.

The Health Physics Society web site has an extensive "Ask the Experts" section which includes detailed answers to questions such as Is there any risk for health with the installation of a cellular tower near a community? (answered by Gary H. Zeman of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and Is there any standard for a distance between a cellular base station and residential area? (answered by Kenneth R. Foster of the University of Pennsylvania).

The Federal Communications Commission web site also includes Questions on radio frequency safety and a listing of FCC actions and proposals relating to radio frequency safety issues.

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