Cell service is crucial

Now that the dust has settled from the Ashland City Council's debate over placement of an AT&T cell phone transmission "tower," the council has an opportunity to take on the much larger and as yet unaddressed issue: the city's responsibility to ensure that cell phone users throughout the city can access consistent and adequate service.

Twenty years ago, cell phones were a novelty. Unless we had money to burn, or some really unusual communication issue, we all relied on the same old landline we'd had for years. But times have changed, and dramatically. Try to identify a single individual under the age of 30 who uses a land line. Unless that 20-something still lives with mom and pop, his world is only about cell phones.

And as those of us well past our 20's can attest, it's not just the young people who have become cell-centric. I talk to my parents (in their eighties) and my children (in their twenties) via cell phone. Cell phones are integral to my workplace, used by staff members who travel about the community. Ask any innkeeper in town, and you will hear that a growing percentage of visitors use cell phones to locate services and make reservations — quite often while traveling up I-5. And if you still question the essential nature of these devices, try finding a payphone anywhere in town.

Every day I hear from friends and colleagues announcing that they are disconnecting their land lines. When every member of the family has a cell phone, and the only calls that come in on the landline are political or commercial in nature, that line quickly becomes a monthly expense we can live without. AT&T didn't come to town to impose evil corporate values on all of us; rather, they came because we essentially invited them, since half of us (and all our kids) own iPhones.

The anecdotal evidence supports the obvious and overriding conclusion: Cell telephones are fundamental to our business and personal lives and an essential part of the city's communication infrastructure. A city that is responsive to the needs of its residents should be looking at the actions we need to take to ensure that comprehensive service is available to residents, businesses, and visitors. A failure to act is a repudiation of our responsibilities.

What happens, for example, if a resident living on Peachey Street tries to call for emergency assistance and his cell phone fails to connect? We know (because this testimony was submitted during the public hearing) that AT&T service is skimpy or missing in that part of town. Since we have now turned down a transmission facility that would have served that resident, are we legally liable in case of emergency? If not legally, are we morally liable?

Finally, a quick word about alleged health impacts.

It's true that we don't have the final word on possible impacts of cell phone usage, and we probably won't for years to come. In the same way, we don't know the impacts that may occur from sitting in front of a computer screen for hours every day.

But if there are negative impacts from cell phone usage, they are most certainly focused on the use of that phone itself, not from the transmission facility. The potential risks come from the fact that that phone rides in your back pocket or on your belt, nesting at your ear right up against your brain for hours every day. But not a single person who testified against AT&T at the Planning Commission offered to give up his/her cell phone if we turned down the application.

Let's face it — we've drunk the cell phone Kool-Aid and there's no going back. Meantime, at least one Ashland council member is advocating that we wordsmith the city ordinance regulating transmission facilities to make the standards for location more rigorous. Doing so would be a waste of time. Instead, let's take a 21st-century approach and begin to talk about what the city's role might be in the regulation and provision of new communications technology. That would be real leadership.

Pam Marsh lives in Ashland.

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