The real electromagnetic emissions danger

I live 1.2km away from Sutro Tower in San Francisco. At my wife’s request I was trying to calculate the safe radius at which emissions from the transmitters at Sutro Tower are of the same power as a cell phone held a meter away, with back-of-the-envelope calculations using the inverse square law and Wikipedia’s table of radio powers.

I was shocked to find out the total power from the transmitters is about 8 megawatts, not in the kilowatt range I was expecting, and once reached 29MW. For comparison, the power of France’s first-generation PWR nuclear reactors is 900MW, and a typical cellular tower is 100W to 500W. If I use 2W as the reference, this yields a “safe” radius of 2km, which excludes many desirable San Francisco neighborhoods like Twin Peaks, Forest Hill or Noe Valley (click on the map to expand).

Sutro Twoer 2km radius map

I looked up the most recent Environmental Impact Report following the DTV transition, and it mentions a FCC maximum allowed flux level of 0.2mW/cm2, and the measured levels in the Midtown Terrace neighborhood immediately adjacent to Sutro Tower reach 4% of this max level.

On further investigation, this is not one of those situations where US standards are significantly more lax than those in Europe, as France or the UK have the same level, derived from an international NGO called the ICNIRP. Interestingly, according to the WHO the maximum allowed emissions in such environmental paragons as Russia and China are one hundredth as high as those in the US or Europe and are just as science-based as those from ICNIRP (remember, for all its faults, the Soviet Union ranked very highly in maths and physics education & research, and in health care).

The ICNIRP/FCC standard is equivalent to a 25W isotropic emitter within a 1 meter radius, or 12x 2G GSM cell phones. Anyone who has experienced the squeal of unshielded and unpowered speakers next to an actively transmitting GSM phone will be skeptical about their claims that this is a safe level. Their methodology is based solely on the thermal effects of non-ionizing radiation, as if this were a mere microwave oven shielding exercise, and assumes that cells are otherwise unaffected by electromagnetism or cumulative exposure. This seems unwarrantedly optimistic.

People worry about cancer risks associated with radio frequency emissions from cell phone towers and cell phones themselves, but the real risk comes from overlooked obsolete technologies like TV and FM radio.

What to do? Getting a site survey from a Professional Engineer using calibrated equipment costs $1,500, which is something you would only do as part of a final inspection while buying a house. Most RF power meters sold on places like Amazon, usually in the $300 range, are pieces of junk with suggested applications like detecting paranormal activity and ghosts. Most likely solid engineering and metrology are optional given their application domain. Professional T&M gear like an Agilent V3500A or a Wandel & Goltermann/Narda EMR-300 cost $2,000 and $6,000 respectively, so the DIY route is also expensive.

Update (2014-03-08):

My father worked on some projects in the Soviet Union in the Seventies. He told me their workplace safety standards were much more stringent than the ones in the West. Workers were not allowed to lift weights above 25kg, for instance.

Update (2014-08-01):

We moved to a house across from Parkside Square (in the lower left corner of the map), well beyond the 2km limit.

Afsheen’s mindset list

Beloit College is famous for its Mindset List, which explains to teachers the radically different world view students have, because their assumptions and experience are different. One example from this year’s list: “GM means food that is Genetically Modified”.

I tried to imagine what the list looks like when my daughter starts University.

Some are no-brainers, as they have already occurred:

  • A phone call has always involved both video and sound
  • A computing device is always touch-enabled

For some others, I may have to go out on a limb:

  • Cars have always been self-driving

Update (2015-08-25):

  • House roofs have always been tiled with solar panels

How the iPad Mini killed my iPhone

The single greatest feature of the iPad is the fact it cannot receive phone calls. Despite being a telecoms engineer by training, I despise phones, and it seems the millennial generation shares my disdain, as it favors less intrusive means of communication like texting.

The iPad is an essential device for me. I am on a 2-year upgrade cycle (at best) for phones, a 5-year cycle for my desktop Mac Pro, and have stopped using laptops altogether, but I will get every single iteration of the iPad. Now, even though my jacket has a pocket sized large enough to hold my full-sized iPad, the weight and bulk means I seldom did so, and kept it in my bag, which I rarely take out with me when going out for lunch. When I saw the iPad Mini and how lightweight it was, I bought one and started carrying it with me all the time.

The Mini is not a replacement for my Retina iPad, as my worsening eyesight makes it a strain for sustained reading, which is why I kept my grandfathered unlimited AT&T data plan on the full-sized iPad and got a limited Verizon plan on the Mini.

No, the device that was displaced is actually my iPhone. The iPad Mini weighs barely twice as much, is thinner, fits in my jacket pocket but has a screen 4 times the size while remaining single-hand-holdable, and is actually usable as a web browsing device or eBook reader, unlike the iPhone’s cramped screen. I don’t believe in the 5-inch phablet form factor, which combines the cramped screen of a phone with the the bulk of a tablet, i.e. the worst of both worlds. I find I never use the iPhone as anything else than a dumb phone any more. I consume less than 60 minutes of voice per month, and if my wife and my startup’s co-founder would let me, I would ditch mobile phones altogether.

Alas I am unable to cut the wireless phone tether, but there is no point in my spending $100 a month on an unlimited data plan for my Verizon iPhone 4, so now that my contract ended, I ported my number over to my old unlocked AT&T iPhone 3GS with a prepaid plan from Airvoice (a MVNO that has the cheapest rates I could find online). At $0.10 a minute without any exorbitant cellco taxes or spurious surcharges, I can expect to spend $6 a month, or 94% savings. That more than covers the $20 a month I pay extra for the iPad Mini’s data plan. The only reason I still use an iPhone instead of switching to a dumbphone is the automatic address book synchronization with my Mac and iOS devices.

Crime does not pay

Two years after the Staceycide, the spot is still vacant. At a reported rent of $65,000 a month, that adds up to a cool $1.8M loss for the greedy landlords who pushed them out of business.

Stacey’s, RIP

It seems they finally found a new tenant: a CVS pharmacy occupies the premises now.