A wireless Internet company called Clearwire is moving into Pittsburgh today — service in some areas began at 12:01 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 30 — but you might not know it unless you look up.
More than 70 antennas are being affixed to structures around the city, including several synagogues and Jewish schools.
Community Day School and Tree of Life Congregation, among other Jewish establishments, have agreed to give Clearwire rooftop space to install antennas that will blanket surrounding areas with the company’s 4G wireless network. Clearwire will pay regularly for the space.
Before entering into a deal with Clearwire, the Community Day School board, “immediately got outside information about any health concerns that go along with these installations,” said Head of School Avi Baran Munro. “We took a cautious approach.”
The 4G, or WiMAX (short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), wireless network technology used by Clearwire is similar to the signals emitted by in-home wireless routers, but designed for long-range access. 4G technology is newer, compared to other wireless technologies, and handles wireless communication methods, like video chatting, smoother than previous, similar services.
Clearwire first approached the school in March. Community Day Vice President and board of trustees member Stuart Kaplan said the board spent, “over 100 hours learning everything there is to know about 4G,” including the stringent Federal Communications Commission policies regulating the safety of 4G networks, before making the decision to accept Clearwire’s offer. The school then called a meeting of parents and neighbors in August to explain the possible concerns, but it drew “minimal attendance,” said Munro. “Nobody asked for another meeting.”
In the resulting deal, Clearwire will pay Community Day about $20,000 annually, with that fee increasing each year. “People may minimize the amount, but for a school like ours, raising that amount of money is very hard,” said Munro.
The school isn’t nearly alone. Within one mile of the school, five other towers are to be constructed, including on sites such as Murray Towers, Maxon Towers and a Walnut Capital building. Similar towers top several other area schools, including Pittsburgh Allderdice and Shady Lane School. With additional Clearwire antennas to be constructed around the city, the goal is to create a wide-reaching, mobile 4G network.
“Each tower’s frequency propagates for about half a mile,” said Clearwire spokesperson Debra Havins. “This allows users to move while maintaining Internet access.”
Noting the sparse concern from parents about wireless-related health issues, Munro said, “If there was any concern we would be harming the children, there could be a million dollars on the table and we wouldn’t take it.”
The World Health Organization writes that, “To date, the only health effect from RF (radio frequency) fields identified in scientific reviews has been related to an increase in body temperature,” from exposure to very high intensity fields, unlike a 4G tower. “The levels of RF exposure from base stations and wireless networks are so low that the temperature increases are insignificant and do not affect human health.”
But for those few who have raised concerns, the worry stems from the unknown. While agencies like the FCC and WHO have established “standards for all wireless companies as to how much radio frequency emissions can be out there, and all companies operate well below those standards,” said Havins, research as to the long-term effect of exposure to such frequencies takes many years. WiMAX technology, conversely, has become commonplace only in recent years.
“When the school went wireless, there was no outcry. When we got laptops, it could have been a similar concern,” said Munro. “Antennas seem to spark a different concern.”
Devra Davis, the author of “Disconnect,” a book examining the link between cell phone radiation and cancer, whose grandchild attends Community Day, called cell phone radiation “a different set of issues” than 4G towers.
“Nobody stands with their heads next to these towers,” she said. “It’s my understanding that there is no bedroom within a few hundred feet of [Community Day]. That’s a good thing. The more serious concern is when you have antennas, as you do in most of Pittsburgh, that are in crowded areas.”
The frequency from Clearwire antennas emanates directionally outward, a factor that Davis said she advised school officials to, “monitor once the antenna is installed to make sure [the frequency] doesn’t go into the roof.”
Community Day maintains the right to terminate its relationship with Clearwire whenever and if ever school officials wish.
Schools, synagogues and churches are among the most common spots for wireless Internet antennas because, said Havins, “They tend to be good locations with multiple levels and are usually located in the center of a community.”
With this week’s launch, Clearwire is just the latest addition to an already growing wireless Internet trend in Pittsburgh.
“This is like a railroad or a 747,” said Kaplan. “This technology is coming.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)