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Can they hear you now?

Sophomore Kelli Mix stood on top of a picnic table bench in the courtyard of North Medford High School waving her cell phone over head in search of a stronger signal.

"I only have six bars," she announced over her shoulder to the trio of her friends standing behind her.

Earlier this week, AT&T, formerly Cingular, added a cell phone tower on the top of the North Medford gymnasium, joining Sprint and U.S. Cellular who have had towers there since 2001 and 2002, respectively.

Each company pays $750 to more than $1,000 per month to keep the towers there. The revenue goes into the Medford School District's general fund for operations.

Since AT&T added the tower, Kelli, who is a Sprint customer, said her cell phone signal has weakened.

But some students, largely AT&T and T-Mobile customers, reported they have a stronger signal in the courtyard since the new tower went up.

"The reception varies from place to place," said senior Johana Coronel, an exchange student from Venezuela and a T-Mobile customer.

One rumor circulating around campus is that school officials rigged equipment on top of the gymnasium to intentionally hamper students' cell phone reception, Kelli said.

That news elicited a chuckle from Assistant Principal Ron Beick.

"That's a good idea," he quipped, "but it's not true."

In fact, AT&T added the tower to enhance signals for some of their customers in north Medford whose location at a lower elevation had caused a "shadow" in reception.

Despite the presence of three cell phone towers, "the running joke has been no one seems to have good reception here on campus," Beick said.

There are still trouble spots on campus inside some buildings.

"Most of my friends have reception on campus," said senior Michael Tribble. "Sometimes it depends on the phone."

Last year, students were forbidden from using their cell phones on campus, but with the arrival of the new principal, Patrick Royal, in the fall, the rules have been relaxed.

Students are now permitted to use their phones before classes, after classes and during lunch.

School officials sometimes receive questions about the health effects of the towers, particularly whether the radio signals can cause cancer.

Radiation from cell phone towers and antennas is unlikely to cause cancer or any other ill effect, as they emit the same kind of low-energy radiation as AM/FM radio signals and heat lamps, according to the American Cancer Society.

Unlike X-rays, which are ionizing radiation, radio waves lack enough energy to break the bonds that hold molecules in cells together, and they contain relatively low energy, so it does not enter tissues, the society states on its Web site.

For more details on cell phone towers and health, visit tinyurl.com/2sknn9 on the Web, an abbreviated link that will take you to the American Cancer Society information page.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Kelli Mix, North Medford High School sophomore demonstrates how she searches for better reception for her cell phone during the school's lunch period. pennell photo - Bob Pennell