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Editorial: Verizon, residents need to be patient as demands for cellular service increase

Verizon Wireless will have to show some patience and understanding when trying to convince Amherst residents that deploying “small cells” in their neighborhoods is a good idea and that it won’t harm them or drive down property values.

Amherst residents will have to show an equal measure of patience as the company makes its case. Each side of this contentious issue should promise to be open, transparent and willing to consider the other party’s argument.

The residents may not have a choice in the matter, barring some unforeseen legal action. Meanwhile, the technology march toward the future continues and so far smartphones and tablets, which require a good deal of cellular data, are leading the way. The fact is that nobody wants to do without his gadget and everybody wants good service.

As recently reported in The News, these “small cells” are about 4 feet tall and weigh about 400 pounds. They serve the function of the tall “macro cell” towers but are lower powered and can be placed atop utility poles. Those familiar cell towers can rise 90 feet tall or higher. The small cells have been dubbed by wireless providers as “street furniture,” as they consider the devices to be unobtrusive.

But that sentiment is not shared by a number of residents. As News staff reporter Joseph Popiolkowski recounted, the 12 small cells the company wants to place in a northwest Amherst residential neighborhood near the University at Buffalo are causing a fuss.

The company has already installed an undisclosed number of the cells in Buffalo and a handful in Cheektowaga. Company officials may have figured that the Amherst location, despite being in front of homes and a school would, in some cases, be accepted.

Instead, residents and town officials question safety and potential health effects related to the small devices. Their concerns may sound familiar to those who remember the power-line electromagnetic fields controversy.

Mobile data traffic is not slowing down. It is expected to increase from an average of 5.1 gigabytes per active smartphone per month in 2016 to 25 gigabytes by 2022. Those figures come from Ericsson, a telecommunications research company. Zhi Sun, an assistant professor in the department of electrical engineering at the University at Buffalo, quoted in The News, drew a clear picture of many people who want to talk in the same room. “If everyone talks, no one can hear each other because of the interference.”

That is where the small cells come in, which would essentially divide the “larger room into small rooms,” as the professor said. Important in this example, it adds bandwidth capacity for customers. And, as technology advances, the cells will almost certainly become smaller and more efficient.

The applications for the utility poles in front of various locations are expected to be considered next month by the town Zoning Board of Appeals. Still, folks in Amherst are considering whether they can do something similar to the Town of Tonawanda, which earlier this month instituted a moratorium on communication towers, monopoles and antennas. The 1996 Federal Communications Act requires a decision on an application within 150 days. If not, the wireless carrier can take a municipality to court for relief, according Amherst’s deputy attorney.

Meanwhile, Verizon is marching the technology across the country. It may have to work a little harder here and there to convince folks the technology is safe and truly unobtrusive. It should plan on doing that, understanding that public fears, exaggerated or not, need to be addressed professionally.

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