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The next big thing in cellular technology, 5G, will bring lightning-fast wireless Internet – and thousands of antenna-topped poles to many neighborhoods where cell towers have long been banned.
Wireless companies are asking Congress and state lawmakers to make it easier to install the poles by preempting local zoning laws that often restrict them, particularly near homes. The lobbying efforts have alarmed local officials across the country. They say they need to ensure that their communities do not end up with unsightly poles cluttering sidewalks, roadsides and the edges of front yards.
They also are hearing from residents worried about possible long-term health risks. Until now, much of the cell equipment that emits radio-frequency energy has been housed on large towers typically kept hundreds of feet from homes. The new “small cell” technology uses far more antennas and transmitters that are smaller and lower-powered, but clustered closer together and lower to the ground.
“We want to see the future of wireless infrastructure happen, but we want a say in how that happens,” Montgomery County (Maryland) Council President Hans Riemer said.
Riemer said the county anticipates more than 600 applications for new small cell facilities over the next several years, including in neighborhoods with underground utilities. He called the state legislative proposals “a giveaway to the industry.”
“Companies could put a lot of junk on telephone poles and light poles in our neighborhoods and change the appearance of the communities we live in,” he said.
Industry leaders say they cannot meet the surging demand for faster and more reliable Internet service unless local governments streamline their 1990s-era zoning regulations written for the far fewer, and much larger, cell towers.
Over the next several years, they expect to deploy as many as 300,000 small cell sites nationwide – about the same number of cell sites installed over the past 35 years, according to CTIA, the industry’s trade association.
In addition to meeting the soaring demand for data, they say, 5G – or fifth-generation wireless broadband technology – is needed to operate self-driving vehicles, “smart cities,” and the growing number of Web-based home appliances, electronics and other devices.
“It’s important for us to get this network out there,” said Charles McKee, vice president of government affairs for Sprint. “I understand the sensitivities cities have and we understand their concerns. We want to work with them. Our goal here is not to force them to do things, but we need to deploy this, and we need to deploy it fast.”
Industry-backed legislative proposals introduced this year in 18 states, including Maryland and Virginia, would preempt most local zoning laws for small cell poles up to 50 feet tall. They would limit residents’ input on applications for small cell facilities and restrict local governments’ ability to reject them.
Thirteen states have adopted such laws since 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Similar legislation recently passed the Virginia General Assembly, but Gov. Ralph Northam, D, has not said whether he will sign it. Virginia passed a law last year that weakened local authority over small cell equipment attached to existing structures. The latest legislation would cover new poles.
Maryland state senators have scheduled a hearing Tuesday on their legislation.
The industry has found a sympathetic ear at the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal to no longer require companies to outline the environmental and historical impacts of proposed small cell facilities. The FCC has said the regulations create unnecessary expense and delays. The agency also has appointed an advisory group to recommend other ways to expedite the 5G network, including by “removing state and local regulatory barriers.”
Congress also has held hearings on the issue.
“In order to spur investment in these states, we need regulatory certainty for our members,” said Jamie Hastings, a CTIA senior vice president.
Many local officials say they want 5G – their businesses seek hiccup-free video conferences, and residents complain when their screens freeze while binge-watching shows on their favorite streaming service. But they say they should not be forced to cede so much control over publicly-owned right of way to profit-driven companies.
“I don’t think any of us want to say no” to small cell networks, said George Homewood, planning director for Norfolk and a point person on the issue for the American Planning Association. “We’re just saying these decisions are best for localities to make.”
Andy Spivak recalled the “uproar” two years ago in his North Potomac, Maryland, neighborhood outside Washington when residents heard about proposals to install small cell equipment along local roads. He and others were most concerned about the potential health effects. He said he also is worried that the wireless industry’s “astronomical” political sway could leave his local government powerless to require that new poles blend in, such as hidden among trees or disguised as street lamps.
“There’s no way we’re going to stop this technology from being deployed – it’s just the way of the world,” said Spivak, a lawyer. “But can they try to make them aesthetically pleasing or hide them so I don’t have to drive around my neighborhood and see ugly cell towers?”
Jim Sledge, of Germantown, Maryland, said he was surprised to learn two years ago that a company had proposed a new pole at the foot of his driveway – just beyond his young grandson’s bedroom window. The pole has not been installed, although Sledge said he’s been unable to learn why.
Sledge, a retired computer specialist for the federal government, said he has read studies showing possible links between long-term exposure to cell emissions and health problems such as cancer, neurological disorders, insomnia and depression.
“The antenna would have been 35 feet from his head as he slept 10 to 12 hours a day,” Sledge said of his grandson.
Under federal law, local governments may not reject a cell facility application for health reasons as long as the equipment meets FCC standards for radio-frequency radiation emissions. Some local officials say they are concerned those limits, which were set in 1996, could be outdated for wireless equipment closer to homes.
The FCC’s website says studies of potential links between cancer and radio-frequency radiation from cell emissions are “inconclusive.”
Asked about residents’ health concerns about small cell equipment closer to homes, FCC spokesman Neil Derek Grace said companies must continue to abide by the federal health limits.
“When it comes to radiofrequency emissions, small cells typically use much less power than their larger cell tower counterparts,” Grace said in a statement.
CTIA said federal health agencies and “numerous” health experts have found “no known health risk” from cell equipment. When asked specifically about small cell facilities, a CTIA spokeswoman referenced the FCC’s website, which states that “ground-level power densities are hundreds to thousands of times less than the FCC’s limits for safe exposure.”
Industry officials say the new equipment will be on poles up to 50 feet tall – compared with the large towers that are typically 100 to 250 feet – and will be far smaller than what residents are used to seeing. They say antennas are about the size of two to three paper towel rolls, and transmitters compared in size to a George Foreman grill. Much of it, they say, will attach to existing utility poles, streetlights, traffic signals and government buildings.
But in areas with no poles or other structures, such as those with buried utilities, new poles could be installed every 400 to 500 yards. In cities and dense suburbs, each carrier could install a pole every block.
State laws also typically allow equipment storage boxes totaling up to 28 cubic feet – about the capacity of a refrigerator – on the poles or at their base.
Monica Gambino, of Houston-based Crown Castle, which provides wireless infrastructure, said companies want new small cell structures to look like existing utility poles.
“Our goal is to blend with the aesthetics of the community,” Gambino said.
Rusty Monroe, a telecommunications consultant for local governments across the country, called small cell technology a “game-changer” for communities. Most important, he said, the industry-written state laws no longer allow local officials to require that companies prove they need what they have proposed.
“I could build almost anything I wanted almost anywhere I wanted,” Monroe said. “You get eyesores right in front of people’s homes.”
That idea does not sit well with residents such as Sledge, who said he worries that he and others will be left unaware when new cell equipment is headed their way.
“They’ll streamline the process so you’ll come home and see someone digging a hole in your front yard to put in a new pole with 300 pounds of antennas on top of it,” Sledge said. “At that point, it’s a little too late.”