BY PAT BLAIS
In a world increasingly obsessed with the latest cell phones, high tech gadgets and social media and streaming service fads, there's quite a bit of chatter around the coming Internet-of-Things era and 5G networks needed to usher in that revolution.
Over recent years, techies have linked the spread of 5G equipment to wild advances such as robot-managed surgeries, driverless vehicles and drone delivery fleets, and the advent of smart cities where computers manage real- time road conditions, use sensors to locate water leaks, and even track down fleeing criminals through surveillance cameras.
But that high tech hype is about to smash right into the old world infrastructure of public squares and municipal streetscapes. And as local officials and citizens are quickly discovering, there is to be no meaningful public debate over that next wave of wireless communication technology.
In a highly controversial ruling, federal authorities more than a year ago stripped away a host of zoning and permitting powers that were previously utilized by local governments to regulate wireless telecommunications installations.
Specifically, in Sept. of 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a sweeping order that eliminated communities ability to relegate new small wireless facilities (SWFs) to special zoning districts commonly referred to as wireless overlay zones.
Perhaps remembering the lackluster public reception given to the last generation of wireless antenna arrays — which were often mounted to free standing towers and building rooftops — the FCC ruling has been described by legal experts as giving telecommunications providers unprecedented rights to pepper public ways and streets with small cell antennas and similar SWF installations.
For example, in Woburn, where zoning ordinances previously discouraged the placement of wireless antennas in residential neighborhoods, the City Council has already considered at least four applications for SWF arrays since the FCC ruling was released.
While two of those installations involved utility poles in industrial and commercial zones, a pair of unrelated applications from Verizon Wireless and New Cingular Wireless involved areas around residential neighborhoods in Woburn's Hammond Square and near the site of future housing development on Commerce Way.
"It's ridiculous," said Woburn City Council President Michael Anderson. "We should have a say on where these installations go. Now they're trying to put these in public ways. I'm not saying we would outright deny [these requests], but we shouldn't be told [by an applicant], 'This is where it's going.'"
In its Sept. 27 ruling, the FCC described the proliferation of 5G networks as pivotal to the future of innovation and the American economy.
In explaining its rationale for curbing the powers of municipalities, the federal officials claimed they were helping the U.S. win a global competition to build the needed infrastructure.
"The FCC is committed to doing our part to ensure the United States wins the global race to 5G to the benefit of all Americans," reads the federal order and report, which spans some 116-pages. "Today's action is the next step in the FCC's ongoing efforts to remove regulatory barriers that would unlawfully inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary to support these new services."
Industry insiders have boasted that the technology, which utilizes extremely high frequency (EHF) bands on the millimeter wave length, will enable the Internet-of-things era, where virtually every household appliance and consumer good is equipped with wireless connections.
According to telecommunications giants such as AT&T and Verizon, the next generation network will not only drastically expand the bandwidth and speed of Internet connections for cell phones and other wireless devices, it will accomplish that feat with far less conspicuous arrays.
Specifically, the rollout of 5G networks is expected to spell the end of cell-towers and other large scale antenna arrays, which needed to be placed at great heights in order to spread "line-of-sight" signals out to customers' cell-phones.
In contrast to those previous 3G and 4G devices, 5G equipment is dependent upon much smaller systems, which include canister antenna and distributed-antenna-system arrays (DAS).
However, according to local officials like Stoneham Select Board Chair Shelly MacNeill, what is being labeled as a major advantage by service providers will likely be viewed quite differently by the general public, especially if those installations are being erected right outside citizens' homes.
Specifically, because 5G EHF transmissions are limited in the distance they can travel, industry experts anticipate that hundreds of thousands of new small cell antennas will be required across the country. Based upon FCC projections, as many as 800,000 separate 5G arrays will likely be erected between now and 2026.
"I understand the need for expanding, but we need to be careful of about what our community's landscape will look like. I think this is something people need to pay attention to," said MacNeill. "Technology changes so fast, and we're making so many strides. But we have to do this with caution," the Stoneham official furthered. "We can't as a board deny these because of the FCC ruling. But we have to make sure we're not completely covering neighborhoods with this technology."
MacNeill and Burlington Selectman James Tigges, who last fall lead efforts to form a special town committee to investigate the effects of the new technology, are especially concerned about potential health effects from the new 5G transmissions.
Burlington, which established the state's first revised zoning bylaw and 5G regulations, formed the special study committee after the Board of Selectmen received an application in the summer of 2018 from Verizon Wireless to install as many as 14 canister antennas across the community.
According to Tigges, though that early application enabled the community to respond swiftly to the FCC ruling — its bylaws have been modeled by dozens of cities and towns — he still has huge concerns with the scope of the federal decision.
"Municipalities' hands are tied. It's not that we don't want 5G. We just want a say. It's our town and we should be able to work with the providers," he said. "I was shocked by how little control the town has over something like this. The FCC standard seems like it was written by the [wireless] industry," the Burlington selectman remarked.
Technically, based upon the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act, communities are already forbidden from discussing radiation and other potential negative health effects when considering permitting applications for wireless antenna arrays.
The new FCC ruling, already gutting communities' regulatory powers in regard to next generation 5G equipment, controversially continues that practice — despite the near certainty that the arrays will be placed in much closer proximity to citizens and their homes.
"We want the technology. But if they want to put them along Mall Road, where businesses are vacant at night, that's a much easier sell than putting them in a residential neighborhood," said Tigges, who was shocked to learn health effects can't even be discussed during town deliberations over wireless applications.
"I know we're not supposed to question the health effects of 5G, but I think there's enough data out there where we should be cautious," later said Anderson in a separate phone interview. "We should at least be able to take a pause [to consider whether this is safe], because the consequences could be drastic."
Like Woburn, Stoneham has already received word that a service provider, AT&T, is ready to submit an application for two SWF installations. During a Select Board meeting this winter, officials from the company detailed plans to place two small-cell antenna installations on street light fixtures amidst two residential sections of the town by Barbara Road and Rivers Lane.
According to MacNeill, AT&T, besides waiting for the town to update its wireless standards before filing its permitting request, has already offered to replace both of the street lights being utilized. In doing so, the arrays would be barely noticeable.
"I don't want to see us sell-out for new infrastructure and equipment at the risk of the health of our residents. It's not worth it. But if they can just come in and stick these poles everywhere, and we don't have a say, then we have to consider working with them to make sure this doesn't change the entire aesthetic of the community," said the Select Board chairwoman of the recent AT&T pitch.
With many characterizing the FCC order as already preventing cities and towns from blocking SWF's from being installed along public ways and residential side streets, other commonly criticized components of the federal decision include complaints about new caps on the fees communities can charge applicants.
Though some communities charged thousands of dollars in application fees for 4G-era arrays, the FCC considers those previous charges as "excessive" and "unreasonable".
As a result, the federal agency, citing what it considers a reasonable fee schedule, has recommended communities charge no more than $500 for an up-front permit application for uses at existing telecommunications installations. It further recommends that $500 fee should cover as many as five separate SWFs.
For carriers seeking to expand installations beyond that five-installation threshold, the FCC recommends an additional $100 charge, while costs may not exceed $1,000 for a proposal to erect a brand new utility pole or free standing structure.
Lastly, the federal agency has ordered the implementation of new "shot clocks" — or 60-to-90 day windows — within which government bodies must issue a decision for requests to erect a new wireless installation. Though not yet tested by higher courts, municipal attorneys are advising local officials that a failure to meet that deadline will likely result in the automatic issuance of the requested permits.
According to Tigges, that shot clock could be potentially crippling for communities that lack sufficient personnel to review SWF petitions and ensure they meet an already limited range of local zoning, public safety, and aesthetic design standards.
Normally, municipalities in the state retain private consultants to review those technical components at the petitioner's expense. However, due to the fee caps contained within the FCC decision, that process will likely be abandoned by many area cities and towns.
Burlington, wary of relying upon town personnel for that review, still opted to retain a private radio frequency engineer to review future applications.
"It's important for residents to realize that we're limited in what we can do. But our policies have been put in place so we can [have some control over] what providers are doing," said Tigges.