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9th December
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, December 9, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

On a winter night nearly two years ago, an operator in the city’s emergency response center received a desperate call for help. “We’re taking in water.…We’re on the Long Island Sound in a boat off the coast of City I … . Oh, my God,we’re going to die!”Then the operator lost the signal from the cell phone.

The call was made by 17-year-old Henry Badillo. Young Henry and three pals filched a rowboat from a City Island marina, and set off for nearby Hart Island.

The late night adventure ended tragically. The call faded out before enough information could be gathered to direct a rescue effort. It was 14 hours before it became clear what happened. Any hope of saving the boys was lost along with that call.Had young Henry been able to maintain contact for just seconds longer, the boys might have been saved.
Cellular service on and around City Island is weak. And this is not unique. Mayor Bloomberg has made cell phone service improvement a priority,recognizing that good quality cellular service is vital to our city’s economy — and our safety.

Service providers brag about the reliability of their signal, pointing to the number of “bars” on your phone’s display.But the fact that they feel the need to boast about this is also an admission that in many areas there simply aren’t enough bars to maintain adequate connections. With other utilities,either you have service or you don’t.American cell phone service is unique in its spottiness.

There are many reasons for this.In a desire to foster competition, government has encouraged the establishment of a number of parallel low power cell phone networks. Each company installs an infrastructure of antennae and equipment in order to provide the best possible coverage.This current system of competing networks results in good service in one place, but awful service just a few blocks away. In other countries, particularly those in Europe, service is superior to ours because fewer networks are transmitting more powerful signals.

In order to provide more bars of service, you need more antennae to transmit signals. Cell phones are little more than two-way radios.The signal that is transmitted to your phone is of very low power, only designed to cover a “cell” that may be as small as just a few square blocks. As you move along, computers hand off the signal from cell to cell.This is why it is necessary to have so many antennae, particularly in the clutter of the city. Complicating all this are the multiple competing systems that are building parallel infrastructures.

It has become part of the urban mythology that these low-power radio emissions are dangerous. But there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to back up these claims.There is always fear of the unknown, but we know a great deal about radio waves,which surround us all the time,and have been an increasing part of civilized life for nearly a century.

Feeding the myth are a particularly noxious breed of pandering politicos.State Senator Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Westchester has come up with a dangerous plan that would severely limit the construction of cell phone antennae. He proposes legislation that would require approval of all new antennae by the city’s Buildings Department, which would compel each applicant to “justify” the “need” for a new antenna (as if service providers have nothing better to do with their money than build unneeded infrastructure).

More ominously, Mr. Klein would ban outright the construction of such antennae within 500 feet of any school or nursery. If you take a map and draw circle with a radius of about two blocks around each school and nursery (thousands counting all public, parochial and private schools), there will be precious few places, if any, that new antennae could be constructed. In effect, Mr. Klein would be freezing our currently inadequate service as it is forever, with no hope of taking advantage of any advanced technology that will undoubtedly come along.

Ironically, on the fringe of Mr. Klein’s district, a 50,000-watt clear channel radio-transmitting tower has been erected atop a Bronx apartment building owned by Montefiore Hospital. This tower will soon transmit the broadcasts of WFUV, the Fordham University radio station, the result of a settlement of 10-year dispute between the university and its neighbor, the New York Botanical Gardens (which objected to the “ugly” tower being built on the adjoining Fordham campus on esthetic grounds). This signal is the real deal, not like the puny walkie-talkie signals used by cell phones.

Yet Montefiore,one of the leading teaching hospitals in the nation, perhaps the world, sees no health risk from this powerful antenna, either to the residents of the building — their employees,or to their patients in the hospital facilities directly across the street.Do they know something that Mr. Klein doesn’t?

A truly enlightened leader would educate his constituents on the safety of these installations and the importance they have to our economy and our safety. Millions of New Yorkers and those who come to our great city to engage in commerce depend on cell phone service.We will never see that kind of leadership from Mr. Klein.

Henry Badillo’s desperate call in the night must not be forgotten. Better technology might have saved him and his friends.But one thing is for sure. Despite the ranting of neo-Luddites like Mr. Klein, a stronger signal wouldn’t have done the boys, or anyone else, any harm.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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