Small(ish) Boxes, Big Ruckus

We crave fast digital access no matter where we are. We have even come to expect it to the extent that I’ve seen hotel reviewers slam their overnight stays solely on the basis of slow Wi-Fi. But questions arise: Where do we put the infrastructure? Who gets to control it?

5G cellular network wireless access is expected to move more data more quickly and allow more devices to connect at the same time, as is needed for sensors and smart devices. Think about driverless cars or adjusting your home’s air conditioner while you are in your office miles away. Connectivity and speed are critical for our new-fangled lives.

Most new boxes for 5G are not very big compared to other utility structures, and the ones I’ve seen photos of are generally rectangular boxes sticking up from the top of street light poles above the arm holding the lamp or attached to the tops of utility poles. Admittedly, this adds some height to the existing facilities. But how tall is too tall? Do attempts to camouflage new large poles (if existing ones are not husky enough to bear the equipment’s weight) fit in unobtrusively or look like a joke? Then there are the apartment refrigerator-sized boxes on the ground (some disguised to emulate US Postal service mailboxes): who gets to choose where they sit? Should the owner of a small residential lot have more veto power than someone with a larger lot, or should neither have a say because the public benefit of 5G access outweighs private angst?

We are re-entering a phase of utility growth last blisteringly battled during the introduction of cable television in the 1980s, before cable also figured into phone and computer connectivity and was therefore considered a frill. Back then, there were arguments about the right of cable companies to share poles with long-accepted and recognized utilities like telephone and electric services, or to be buried in general utility trenches with those other established utility facilities. Cable was not immediately accepted as a public utility that deserved the same benefits as the other established enhancers of our lives. Eventually, cable earned recognition in state statutes as bringing such public benefit to communications that it has joined the ranks of accepted utilities with privileged locations in exchange for the necessity of serving all who request its service.

The present situation is only slightly different, as 5G technology is not exactly a new utility but a change in delivery mode (like buried fiber optic cables versus above ground wires). However, some of the companies installing the infrastructure for 5G on behalf of the well-known carriers such as Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T have to apply for utility status in some states to be able to put up boxes and poles in road rights of way controlled by municipalities or counties or states. On the one hand, the companies tout healthier, safer communities through faster communications to improve medical diagnoses and emergency responses, better traffic movement and less congestion through connected sensors and transmitters for traffic control, and new opportunities to integrate new technologies into classrooms (think virtual or augmented reality) and to connect businesses. Waving the other hand vigorously we have the local governments wanting to be able to enforce their planning and zoning ordinances and fee collections. There is not a uniform fee that localities charge for each attachment to poles, which diverge by many thousands of dollars per cell node.

This range of expenses is one reason that wireless companies want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set a cap for local fees, and have approached state legislatures to disallow municipal negotiations in favor of granting private wireless providers the use of public rights of way for low fees that some localities characterize as gifts or grants to those companies—an action prohibited by state constitutions. Any transfer of property or use of property by a municipality to a private company at a fraction of the fair market value of the property or its use falls into the ethical and constitutional abyss. Meanwhile, management of the public rights of way is characterized as a responsibility legislatively delegated to municipalities to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, and the process of management entails permitting processes. Permits are issued only after considering the safety of structures, relating to construction for installation and operational safety, and site selection must consider land use related limitations.

Lawsuits are brewing across the nation. Definitely there are arguments to be made on both sides of 5G facility placement cases. Mixed in with constitutionality and aesthetics are concerns by some about deleterious effects of 5G radiation on human health; cancer, heart damage, and DNA damage are the most commonly cited. And what is the effect on property values when cell nodes are installed? The discussions are not easy, as technology, emotions, and governmental concerns compete.