Wiring for wireless: 5G and the tower in your backyard

In the cities and municipalities of America, people's fears and misunderstandings about the onset of 5G wireless come to a head. Now, lawmakers and public officials are being prompted to make sudden moves that could change everything.
Written by Scott Fulton III, Contributor

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On a pleasant afternoon in early January 2018, at City Hall in Shreveport, Louisiana, a few dozen folks gathered to discuss the implications of a radical new infrastructure project. It would impact the landscape so distinctly that anyone standing within the city's boundaries, looking in any direction, would have to make an effort not to notice something peculiar. The chamber was about as full as for a second-run movie in its final week at the dollar theater. There were no protest signs, and besides the camera the council uses for its own record-keeping, no TV equipment. People who may have been reporters, or at least acting the way reporters used to act, carried not 4G tablets but legal pads.

The discussion seemed to carry the respectful tone one would hope for, with a topic of this magnitude: the construction of 5G wireless transmission facilities (WTF) all over the city. There was even an absence of snickers as one of the Infrastructure Committee's appointed experts on the topic -- Julie Lafargue, a local defense attorney -- carefully disclosed that curious abbreviation.

"The issue of small cells, wireless technology, is here in our city," declared Lafargue, with no fanfare. "And we are, through this process, making steps towards one of the pieces that will make our city a smart city, and lay the foundation for necessary infrastructure needed to improve broadband wireless capabilities in our community, and at the same time make informed decisions by the council and by staff regarding the rights of cities and the regulation of these industries, the rights of the industry itself, the options that the city has before it, in moving forward."


We begin our second stage of our 5G adventure at one of the thousands of municipalities across the United States where all this technological convergence is beginning to generate heat. We're at the northwesternmost tip of Louisiana.


Shreveport supports just under 200,000 people. Its population appears to have been declining, according to the U.S. Census, by about 2,000 people per year since 2012, while smaller cities in the state such as Lake Charles have seen their populations rising by just about as much. According to a 2030 Master Plan for the Shreveport-Caddo area, desperate calls for infrastructure improvement -- new electric lines, replaced bridges, fixed sewers -- dating as far back as 1987, have gone largely unaddressed. On the same day as the infrastructure planning meeting, Shreveport's local paper reported that residents had been receiving highly inaccurate monthly water bills -- one as high as $1,500 -- on account of the city's collapsing analog metering infrastructure.

"With population density in the city decreasing significantly over time as a result of annexation," the plan noted, "the stress of providing dispersed services and expanding infrastructure continues to deepen for the city, with escalating costs and declining levels of service."

One side-effect of failing to provide infrastructural support for Shreveport's residents, the plan pointed out, is that post-secondary education levels are low relative to the rest of the nation, and declining. It's this phenomenon which the notion of a "smart city," as Lafargue referred to it, would seek to remedy. Through the deployment of a high-speed, digital wireless infrastructure, the theory goes, citizens would have expanded access to higher education resources. A more educated population (with more normalized water bills) would make the city more attractive to employers, and could help lure businesses and jobs back into the metropolitan area.

Standing in Shreveport's way, as is the case with most every other American city looking to get smarter, are old, perhaps ancient, city ordinances, teetering under the weight of state and federal laws. They were crafted in an era where it made perfect sense for the city to make way for lanes a few feet wide, for sturdy, pine poles erected between the streets and sidewalks, if it meant facilitating same-day telegraphs from coast to coast.

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These lawmakers never anticipated an era where communications would need to be designed more like an irrigation system, where connectivity rains down upon its thirsty recipients, from an array of poles or buildings or otherwise respectably tall structures, each in the center of an immense hexagonal grid spread across the nation like a beehive.

Shreveport, Louisiana, Infrastructure Commission

"The City has no ordinances that govern the installation and review by the city of these facilities," stated Lafargue, "other just typical building permits, occupancy-type."

Everyone on the opposite side of the half-circle desk from Lafargue probably knew what she was implying, though those in the audience behind her may have been unaware.

The purpose of a zoning ordinance is to regulate the categories of land use that are permitted within a designated zone. Those categories are typically very general, such as "commercial use," "industrial use," "religious," "transportation," "recreation." There typically is no special zone earmarked for "public utility." Instead, there have been special right-of-way zones where above- or below-ground installation of cables and pipes have been expressly permitted.

Today's typical 199-foot cell tower may fall within what cities may call the "industrial use" category, which is why you might not find one in the middle of a sprawling, suburban estate complex unless the base station site owner has, shall we say, special connections. 5G wireless calls for the construction of smaller cells not much larger than a football field, and micro-cells whose coverage radii look more like Wi-Fi. It would need 20- to 30-foot towers scattered anywhere and everywhere, so the municipal discussions inevitably turn to whether these devices would negatively impact the landscape.

Shot clock

In 2014, telcos had been petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to help them expedite the transition of their existing, tall cell towers to 4G. That October, they got their wish, in the form of an order designed to expedite the petitioning process. Now, there was a federal mandate that no service provider's petition to a municipality should take more than 60 days to process, or 30 days from the end of the municipality's 30-day window -- an interval literally called the shot clock. The new order -- today unofficially known as the "shot clock order" -- cited existing federal law prohibiting a municipality from declining any cell tower construction petition, if doing so would preclude the delivery of wireless service to customers. That right to prohibit was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2016.

Just six months after that appeals court ruling, the FCC pushed through an amendment that effectively extended the shot clock order to apply to distributed antenna systems (DAS) -- the shortest of the medium-range transmitters covered by 5G wireless standards, including some that would need to be installed in historic preservation areas. Thus the urgent petition to expedite the transition to 4G was itself transitioned for 5G.

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Until August 2016, no American city needed an ordinance for how to review a petition, for instance, for a gigabit wireless broadband transmitter in an historic neighborhood. The shot clock order gave these cities a template with which to quickly draft such an ordinance -- basically a guaranteed no-fuss, 60-day process.

With that in mind, Julie Lafargue introduced Shreveport's Infrastructure Commission to the 5G proposition: A much larger number of shorter towers with narrower ranges, compared with 4G, would be required for 5G to blanket the city with the necessary ingredient to make it "smarter." Stripped of all the glamour, hyperbole, and artificial testosterone, Lafargue said what this technology was really about -- certainly not as exciting, but more directly and to the point than most any media source has ever done:

A small cell has about a half-mile radius for low-frequency transmissions, and a few hundred yards for higher, microwave frequencies. "They are used to increase speed, generally -- speed of data transfer. And these are coming to us because of a need to decrease demand on larger facilities, but serve more people over a larger area."

A Louisiana defense attorney summed up the 5G proposition better than Wikipedia. The federal government, she went on, leaves it up to cities to determine and regulate for themselves how structures erected in their areas should look. How these WTF facilities are powered and connected must be considered by the city before they're given building permits. Not only must these sites be electrically powered, but to ensure their promised transmission speeds, they will need to be hard-wired with tens of millions of miles of fiber optic cable nationwide. All those miles will require permits -- which, as ordinances stand now, would be paid for by taxpayers, not applicants.

"These are highly technical applications," Lafargue said, "in which most cities do not have the technical expertise to make informed decisions." The city may need to raise fees from applicants, she said, funds from which would pay for experts capable of reviewing those applications.

Shreveport, Louisiana, Infrastructure Commission

After hearing several more minutes of proposals for a framework with which the city could debate and implement new ordinances, it was time to open the floor for public comments. A fellow claiming his cabby hat was Rastafarian, and refusing to remove it, was first to take the podium.

"We're talking about the environmental aspects and dangers of 5G networks," he began. "I'm not a scientist, but neither am I a fool. What we're talking about with 5G is a great health risk, as described by several studies. . . We know that Russia and China banned the use of microwave ovens."


Before the meeting began, the fellow had passed out photocopies of this article, posted on the personal blog of Nevada City, California, councilwoman Reinette Senum. In the early 1990s, Senum ran a cell phone store in Grass Valley.

"We have to understand that the higher the G rating, as in 1G, 2G, 3G, etc., the more toxic this technology is," wrote Senum. "We are now entering uncharted territory known as 5G. Microwave and EMF exposure at the 4G level have already decreased America's overall health. Under the current 5G plan every square inch of America will be bathed and covered in penetrating and irradiating microwaves like never before. It will be impossible to escape this. Impossible."

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In a statement last August before the California State Assembly, Senum spoke out against Senate Bill 249, to begin the process of determining the rights-of-way for builders of 5G towers throughout the state.

"Local governments typically encourage new technology based on claims it will improve the quality of life for its businesses and residents," she told the Assembly. "However, this proposal goes too far by requiring local governments to approve these small cells, macro cells, and large power supplies in all land use zones, including private property, barring the public from decisions that will dramatically, adversely affect the aesthetics of communities, property values, property tax, and quality of our constituents' health and environment. Simply put, SB 649 is a Pandora's Box for California cities -- one that blatantly strips local government of the authority to protect the quality of life for its residents, the environment, and the public right-of-way."

SB 649 passed the State Senate last September, and was amended twice since then. But three weeks after it was presented to Governor Jerry Brown (D), he vetoed the legislation. His move was hailed by 5G opponents such as Dr. Joel M. Moskowitz of UC Berkeley's School of Public Health -- a prominent researcher on the risk of tumors imposed by cell phone use -- as protecting Californians from the potential spread of diseases caused by microwave radiation.

It is far from wrong for people to have a natural skepticism about any new project that would envelop the planet in a tight-knit cap of transmitters whose technology, in another form, is frequently used to quickly reheat coffee and burritos. The residents of Flint, Michigan, are living -- and perhaps dying -- testimony to the catastrophe of failed public infrastructure systems. Nothing this important should go unquestioned.

Yet there is fear that arises from not comprehending a subject enough, and there is also fear of what happens when we finally do comprehend it and the subject becomes closed.


The American Cancer Society has explained, in a calm, rational manner, that radio-frequency waves (RF) are not the same types of ionizing radiation known to damage the DNA of tissue cells. But calmness and rationality, as certain heads of state and deposed sitcom stars have learned, rarely carries the day on Twitter. Thus, statements such as this one declaring that the health risks of RF-based "smart meters" are completely unknown, are being re-interpreted as red flags and warnings that the meters themselves (the receivers, mind you, not the transmitters) are ticking time bombs.

Then when the confusion rises to a crescendo over what was actually meant by the original statement prior to its reinterpretation, an article such as this March report from The Nation Magazine alleges that the continuation of the argument itself may actually be a conspiracy on the part of the wireless industry (which this article calls "Big Wireless") to prevent the argument from being resolved in the opposition's favor. Put another way, if that Shreveport fellow in the cabbie hat seems just a little on the wild side to you, that might just be what "Big Wireless" wants you to think.

In a statement released on the day of his veto of SB 649, Gov. Brown clearly stated his opposition to the bill had nothing whatsoever to do with health risks. Rather, he stood opposed to the state getting in the way of what he perceived as a multitude of local issues.

"This bill establishes a uniform permitting process for small cell wireless equipment and fixes the rates local governments may charge for placement of that equipment on city- or county-owned property, such as streetlights and traffic signal poles," Mr. Brown wrote. "There is something of real value in having a process that results in extending this innovative technology rapidly and efficiently. Nevertheless, I believe that the interest which localities have in managing rights of way requires a more balanced solution than the one achieved in this bill."

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What the Governor is saying here, with very little difficulty, is that the discussions about the redrawing of our country's landscape by way of the rewiring of its entire cellular network must be held at the local level -- in all the Shreveports of America. There, inevitably, the voices and concerns of the people will be more in balance with, or against, the interests of telcos seeking to deploy the most physically disruptive alteration to the nation's communications infrastructure since the telegraph.

But Mr. Brown's blunt declaration flies in the face of the FCC's shot clock order. Sure, it's up to municipalities to process all these petitions, and hear whatever bits of objections the general public may have about this or that disease or health threat, asserts the Commission. Yet the extent to which a nationwide communications network is incapable of covering the entire nation, negatively impacts everyone nationwide, the FCC has maintained, including those who do have service but cannot contact those who don't. And that impact, courts have upheld, outweighs any negative impact a cell tower may have upon the landscape in its vicinity.

Indiana, on the other hand, presents a different story. In early May, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) signed a bill into state law declaring that a small cell facility that's no more than 50 feet tall standing alone, or no more than 10 feet taller than the utility pole it's adjacent to, does not require local zoning review. The permit process, the new law stipulates, shall take no longer than 60 days. Indiana has always been well-known for its shot clocks.


Even though the general public is invited to don its Rastafarian hats and share either its rational objections or its wild theories with the automated TV cameras, the odds may already be stacked against them. As CBS News reported in late May, Donna Baron made herself heard last April in a public meeting of the County Council.

But before she could even speak, Council President Hans Riemer warned attendees, "The Council is pre-empted by federal law from regulating on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions," citing the 2016 Fourth Circuit decision.

Montgomery County, Maryland, Council

Nevertheless, she persisted. "Our quiet suburban neighborhood is being targeted for 16 cell towers to be installed within 20 feet of our homes. North Potomac is being targeted for a total of 61 cell towers. These 5G towers would emit radio frequency radiation into our yards, our homes, and our bodies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And not surprisingly, cell towers would likely decrease our property values by up to 20 percent."

Baron cited two sources: a recently published peer review of a study [PDF] by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) into the effects of RF radiation on lab rats, and the final report of a Ramazzini Institute study [PDF] into the same. She told the Council that lab rats developed cancers when exposed to the same levels of RF radiation that 5G would allow.

Except that isn't exactly accurate. The Ramazzini study exposed rats to extended sessions of RF radiation at GSM's designated 1.8 GHz -- one of the higher frequency bands used by 4G in Europe, near the 1.9 GHz band used in the U.S. That study involved the construction of a field emitter designed to simulate the emissions of a GSM base station. Meanwhile, the NTP study looked into the effects of 900 MHz radiation, down toward 3G's side of the spectrum, used by both GSM and CDMA.

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What's more, NTP was studying the effects of prolonged exposure to 900 MHz frequency -- not exposure to cell tower emissions, and not to cell phone emissions. NTP placed its rats in specially constructed 900 MHz reverberation chambers for periods of time between 14 weeks to as long as two years. The NTP team said its reverb chamber was suggested by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), and described it as somewhat similar to chambers NIST has used in testing signal interference patterns [PDF]. As NIST has noted in its interference studies, using a reverb chamber may equalize the distribution of the frequency over space (which is a bit like maximizing the dose, if you're thinking of it as a drug), at the expense of simulating the directivity of the antenna -- which is something both the transmitter and the receiver utilize in the real world.

So for the NTP study, we can draw some scientific conclusions about prolonged exposure to an artificially normalized RF frequency, however limited. Like a grand jury seeking enough evidence for an indictment, the NTP peer review did uncover "some evidence of carcinogenic activity" in two of four test conditions, with "equivocal evidence" (not enough to say one way or the other) in another condition, and "no evidence" in a fourth. But the reviewers explicitly noted, for the two studies to qualify as "some evidence," "the strength of the response is less than that required for clear evidence."

The Ramazzini Institute study detected what it called a "statistically significant increase" in Schwannomas (nerve tumors) on the hearts of male lab rats, when its base station replicator was set to an RF field dose of 50 volts per meter (V/m). But an actual 1.6 GHz base station would typically generate less than 2 V/m at a 50 meter radius. Two other test conditions yielded results that the researchers said were "not statistically significant."

Polarization being the social force that it is, the news from both studies was immediately aggregated, each time according to the aggregator's own bent. "Cell tower radiation confirmed to cause cancer in animals," touted one publication certain to be cited by citizens in city hall meetings. "U.S. Study Finds Little Evidence Cellphone Radiation Poses Health Risks," reported Insurance Journal, by way of Reuters.



Yet in all of this divining of the evidence for the appropriate language for headlines, one extremely important fact is being overlooked: Neither of these tests pertained to 5G.

For implementation in its Release 15 of wireless standards, the 3GPP coalition is adopting a technique created by China's Huawei called uplink / downlink decoupling. Its purpose is to eliminate the crowding that takes place when a cellular transmitter and a cell phone communicate with one another over the same frequency band. Huawei's implementation would boost the downlink frequency (from the tower to the phone) to the 3.5 GHz band, while splitting the uplink frequency (the reverse direction) between 1.8 GHz and 3.5 GHz.

The FCC is seeking to apportion spectrum for a variety of 5G use cases, in higher frequencies from the 3.7 GHz to 24 GHz bands. At these very high frequencies, signals may carry gigabit-speed data, but for shorter, more Wi-Fi-like distances.

In addition to all of that, the 5G cell phone will, on the inside, be a very different order of beast. It will eventually utilize dime-sized 8x8 MIMO antennas, theoretically capable of downlinks at 64 simultaneous frequencies. Harmonics, as any audio engineer or music composer will tell you, changes the nature of waves. From an engineering perspective, the danger of mixing frequencies is called desense -- the reduction in an antenna's sensitivity, as wave cancellations result in noise. How 5G engineers opt to mitigate the desense issues may result in a wave profile that bears no resemblance to anything any lab rat has ever experienced.

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So even if scientists review the NTP, Ramazzini, and other studies and conclude that further tests of prolonged exposure of lab rats to gigahertz frequencies is warranted, their findings may end up not pertaining to 5G at all -- not until they find a way to simulate the transmissions of a 5G base station (and avoid the temptation of amplifying those transmissions for maximum effect). But even then, no doubt they'll be met with the skepticism of folks like Donna Baron.

"According to a new investigative article," she told the Montgomery County Council, "the FCC has long been known to whitewash problems and quash scientific research on radiation from cell phones in towers. We do not consent to be human subjects, used as laboratory rats, in this radiation experiment. . . It's time to press the Pause button on 5G in residential areas."

In response to our recent ZDNet roundtable podcast, conducted by David Gewirtz, on "The battle over 5G," one reader commented: "5G will control our minds, bodies, souls, and targeted individuals have been victims of testing 5G for at least 5 years that I know of, so this should be scrutinized and taken as opinion."

Regardless of how many shot clocks, targeted souls, and dead rats get piled up in their wake, the battles over 5G will eventually take place in every municipality in this country, on a person-to-person scale. One side will be armed with a blend of information and disinformation. Its argument will be that time is running out. The other side will be watching the shot clock, warning that time is running out. In the balance will be the interests of telecommunications providers, for whom time may already have run out. In any effort to fix this nation's infrastructure, time seems to be on no one's side.


When we return, the next stage of our 5G adventure in Scale leads us to the highest point, where we can see for the first time where all the technological possibilities of a fully wired, wireless world would lead us. Until next time, hold fast.

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