Telecommunications/Cell Phone Tower Fact Sheet

Wireless Telecommunications Facilities FAQs

From the Office of Councilmember Libby Schaaf


Rapidly increasing smartphone and tablet use in recent years has led to rising demand for high-speed wireless data services. In order to meet this demand and to accommodate evolving wireless technology (3G and 4G networks, etc.), cell providers are installing new wireless infrastructure and modifying existing installations nationwide. As such, the City of Oakland has experienced an increasing number of applications for “wireless telecommunication facilities,” unstaffed cell sites that transmit and receive low-power radio signals. 


What is the role of the City of Oakland in the application and review process? Can the City set its own emissions standards for wireless telecommunications facilities?

When reviewing applications for wireless telecommunication installations, the City of Oakland must balance its interest in the development of reliable wireless networks with State and Federal law, the needs of wireless providers, and residents’ concerns. Under the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, local governments cannot deny an application for a wireless telecommunications site because of perceived health risks if the proposed site complies with federal Radio Frequency emissions standards. Similarly, local governments may not set their own emissions standards.

The City is permitted to regulate the design, visual impact, site location, and zoning compliance of telecommunications installations. Therefore, residents must focus their support or opposition of a proposed installation on design and location criteria rather than emissions standards or public health concerns.


How does the application and review process work? What materials do City planning officials evaluate? Does the public have a say in the planning commission decision?


Conditional Use Permit Application and Review Process: The City of Oakland’s Planning Code, Section 17.128 “Telecommunications Regulations,” stipulates that before a proposed wireless communications facility can be installed in or near a Residential or Housing and Business Mix Commercial (HBX) Zone, the applicant must obtain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) through Oakland’s planning department. During the CUP review process, the applicant must prove that the proposed installation will meet FCC emissions standards as well as City design and site location criteria.

For information about specific criteria see Section 17.128

Submission of Application and Public Notice: Once an application has been submitted, the City must provide 17-day public notice, including a poster at the site of the proposed installation and individual notices to property owners within 300 hundred feet. During this period, neighbors and interested parties may submit letters of support or opposition to be attached to the application presented to the planning commission.


Emissions, Site Location, and Design Reports:  Applicants must submit for review a Radio Frequency (RF) Emissions Report prepared by a licensed engineer, proving that emissions from the proposed site will comply with federal standards.

The City classifies proposed wireless telecommunications facilities as micro, mini, macro, monopole, or tower, all of which have different location and design criteria. In general, the criteria for each classification seek to ensure that installations have minimal visual impact and do not disrupt the character of the surrounding communities.

The City maintains Site Location Preferences, with co-location on existing facilities being the most desirable, and new facilities in residential zones the least. Applicants must submit a written report presenting evidence as to why each higher ranked preference cannot be used.  The City also prescribes Site Design Preferences, and requires the applicant to provide written evidence of why each higher ranked design preference cannot be used.


Planning Commission Hearing and Decision: If the proposed installation is located in a residential or HBX zone, the planning commission will hold a hearing open to public comment. After the hearing, the planning commission will make a decision to either approve or deny the application. Residents and other interested parties must request to be copied on the decision letter in order to be notified as the city does not require public notification of planning commission decisions.


Appeal: After the planning commission decision, interested parties have ten days to appeal the decision. An appeal goes before the City Council, which will vote on a final decision.

An application for appeal can be downloaded from the City’s website:


Do these facilities emit radiation? Is it harmful to humans?  Since cell phones use radio waves to transmit information, wireless cell antennas do emit low-level electromagnetic radiation. Scientific studies have confirmed that radio waves at these low frequencies cannot cause heat damage to biological tissue. However, studies concerning long-term biological effects of low-level exposure remain inconclusive. While the World Health Organization lists cell radiation as a possible carcinogen, the National Cancer Institute holds that there is no consistent evidence that cell radiation increases the risk of cancer. To date, low-level cell radiation has not been conclusively linked to cancer, DNA mutations, or other health risks.

More information on health effects and scientific developments can be found at the Federal Communication Commission’s website:

Power Watch, a UK nonprofit, compiles a database of scientific research on the environmental and health effects of low-level radiation:


Does the government regulate emissions limits for wireless telecommunications facilities? How are these limits determined? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal regulatory agency that manages wireless telecommunications, is responsible for setting Radio Frequency (RF) limits for cell sites. By law, wireless telecommunications facilities must operate at or below federal emissions limits. The FCC bases its RF emissions standards on recommendations from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement and from the Institute of Electric and Electronics Engineers. The FCC regularly evaluates new experimental findings to determine whether its RF standards require modification. According to the FCC, measurements near wireless telecommunications sites are generally thousands of times lower than federal limits. The FCC currently holds that there is “no way such [installations] could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents.”

If there is reasonable evidence that FCC RF emissions limits are being exceeded at an existing wireless communications facility, one may contact the FCC to request an investigation.

More information on FCC RF limits can be found at


Do Wireless Telecommunications Facilities affect residential property values in surrounding areas? Existing studies regarding the effects of cell sites on neighboring property values are generally ambiguous. While some prospective buyers may consider a nearby cell installation a “negative amenity” due to health and aesthetic concerns, the same installation may significantly improve cell service and network speed in the surrounding area. The ultimate impact of a wireless telecommunications facility on property values will depend on the type of facility (macro, monopole, tower, etc.), its visual impact, its location, and the character of the surrounding neighborhood.


Who can I contact with further questions?

City of Oakland Department of Planning

250 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 3315 
Phone: (510) 238-3941

Fax: (510) 238-6538


Councilmember Libby Schaaf–District 4

Phone: (510) 238-7004

Oakland, CA 94612                                      


The Federal Communications Commission:

445 12th Street, SW

Washington, DC 20554



Special thanks to Council Intern Hannah Pinkham who researched and wrote this Fact Sheet.