In Telecommunications We Trust:
Reports On and Options for Democracy
by Katie Singer * http://www.electronicsilentspring.com
We’ve always loved telecommunications, even though satisfying the corporations that provide them means paying bills that keep getting higher, using increasing amounts of electricity and natural resources, saturating our world with man-made radiation and giving up privacy. Telecommunications keep whittling away our health, sanity, ecosystems and bank accounts; but few people call the situation dangerous enough to change course.
Now, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and other telecoms want our public-right-of-ways (PROWs). The industry deleted the word “public” and calls them right-of-ways (ROWs).
PROWs are utility poles, traffic lights, government building rooftops. Income from leasing PROWs typically goes to a general fund that contributes to a municipality’s police and fire expenses.
Telecom providers need PROW access for 5G–the fifth generation of wireless infrastructure. 5G’s “small” cellular antennas operate at very high frequencies that can carry much more data at faster speeds than 4G. But 5G’s millimeter waves can’t travel far. Effective 5G infrastructure needs ubiquitous, dense deployment of cell sites. This is where public right-of-ways come into play.
But I’ve got to slow down. I’ve got to ask, What do we want from the Internet? What’s its purpose? What do we use to determine its effectiveness? Its ineffectiveness?
The Internet has become a modern necessity that serves the public–like electricity and water. Call it a utility. To last, we’ll need this electronic forum to stick to a sustainable diet of energy and natural resources. We’ll need affordable costs for consumers, net neutrality, increased security and privacy, and speed. I also vote for less spam and less advertising bots.
What does any of this have to do with PROWs?
The industry says we’re ready for the Internet of Things (IoT), wherein videos take only a few seconds to download, and everything is chipped. Diapers and pill bottles can message your smartphone when your baby’s diaper needs changing or your prescription needs a refill. The Cloud stores all medical, banking, travel (at what store do you shop, what do you buy and at what times) and educational records (etc.). We can think less, feed corporations, and grow our economy. The industry projects that the average Westerner will own 26 IoT-connected devices within a few years.
Because the IoT will generate more data and more traffic, we’ll need 5G. Therefore, around the U.S., we have lawmakers introducing bills that let telecom corporations mount cell sites on PROWs without zoning requirements (i.e. neighborhood notification, public hearings, historic board reviews), with minimal fees for permit applications and leasing. The bills do not require carriers to provide broadband access to everyone.
One state’s example
Here’s a snapshot of what happened in New Mexico: Just before the state’s 2018 legislative session began, in January, four lawmakers introduced the Wireless Consumer Infrastructure Investment Act, SB14/HB38. This “consumer” bill proposed eliminating zoning requirements. It reduced the permit application fee for a cell site (typically $1000) to $20. The cost of leasing a PROW (typically $1000-$2000/year) would shrink to $250 IF other lessees’ (i.e. cable companies) contracts are revised so that they also pay only $250/year. Otherwise, telecoms get free PROW access.
The bill did not limit the noise level of a site cabinet (28 cubic feet, containing many antennas and an air conditioner to keep the gear cool).
SB14/HB38 let telecoms apply for multiple permits at once and required NM municipalities to decide on applications within 30 days.
Effectively, the bill eliminated zoning requirements, reduced telecoms’ expenses and municipalities’ income and increased shareholders’ profits. It prioritized telecom infrastructure over all other development in New Mexico.
When the legislative session began, I sent a petition with 150 signatures opposing the bill to key lawmakers. I phoned a handful of senators’ and representatives’ offices and spoke with their aides. Most of them had not heard of the bill. One aide told me that she knew a “really smart couple” who lived near a cell tower and had a baby born with severe deformities.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “But because of the 1996 Telecommunications Act’s Section 704, no health or environmental concern may interfere with the placement of a cellular antenna.”
She hadn’t known.
Another aide to a progressive lawmaker connected me to their policy analyst. The analyst (a lawyer) admitted that she didn’t understand telecom law well. She suggested a three-way conversation between her, me, and a “really nice” AT&T representative. “No thanks,” I managed. “AT&T’s agenda is to increase their profits. I need a public defender.”
Undeterred, the analyst asked the AT&T lobbyist to send me a packet with photos of “small” cellular antennas on traffic lights. None of them showed a 28 cubic foot cabinet nor a utility pole plastered with electronic gear beside a residence.
Aides told me to check the legislature’s website daily to find out when Committees would hear the bill. Several friends and I did that–but never found SB14/HB38 listed.
Mid-morning, February 7, an aide told me that the Senate Judiciary Committee would hear the Wireless Consumer Act that afternoon. She told me to phone her back after 1pm. At 1:15 pm, I learned that the Judiciary Committee would start at 1:30. I dashed to it.
If only I’d had a smartphone, a friend remarked later. I could’ve used Facebook to text my 150 co-petitioners to come and testify.
The room filled with nearly 100 lobbyists, policy analysts and aides. Nine senators faced the crowd. They heartily thanked the bill’s sponsoring senators and several AT&T lobbyists for their efforts. The sponsoring senators sat at a small table facing the panel.
Lobbyists from more than a half dozen corporations enthusiastically said that SB14 would help our beloved state’s economy. It would keep young people in New Mexico by giving them jobs.
A senator noticed the president of New Mexico’s Municipal League in the audience and asked for his position. The League had strongly opposed the bill, the man explained, until amendments were added that require telecoms to follow historic board and other zoning requirements. So, now, the League favored it.
What do these amendments say? Do they say that corporations must obey historic review…in good faith? Does the League just figure that this bill is the best they’ll get?
Only two audience members opposed the bill. Verizon’s lobbyist said, “The bill might work for AT&T, but Verizon can not afford the fees.”
At my turn, I gave each senator photos of a California woman in front of her home on January 12, 2018, beside a recently installed Verizon wireless cell signal booster and its in-ground utility box. According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, this woman had received no neighborhood notification before the cell site’s installation. Santa Rosa’s IT director said that the installation was quite different than the designs he’d been led to expect.
I explained that because 5G requires dense deployment, if the bill passed and four carriers deploy infrastructure, Santa Fe could expect 1496 new cell sites. Albuquerque 7000, Las Cruces 3000. If more than four carriers want to do business, we could see much higher numbers. Meanwhile, nothing in the bill obligates carriers to provide broadband to all New Mexicans. Unsure of my positions because of the Municipal League’s reversal, I still said that the bill takes away zoning requirements. It doesn’t require a licensed professional engineer (PE) to certify that each pole can bear the extra weight of equipment and cabinets. Then I took my seat. I could no longer question or comment on anything in the meeting. Immediately, I chastised myself for not raising questions about the energy demands of PROW-mounted wireless infrastructure. I wondered how I could get a note to any of the panelists mentioning the noise levels of the air conditioners in the cabinets, and their impact on peoples’ sleep.
The bill’s lead sponsoring senator spoke next. He said that the Act will make New Mexico’s broadband equal to that in other Western states and thereby will help our economy. And, according to the World Health Organization and numerous government agencies, exposure to cell site emissions causes no health problems.
Really? What qualifies this senator to know about EMR-exposure and health problems? What about the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer calling cell phone radiation a possible carcinogen? What about the $25 million study from the National Toxicology Program (part of NIH) showing that cell phone radiation causes brain and heart tumors and damages DNA? What studies do you have about 24/7 exposure to millimeter waves? Also, doesn’t the 1996 Telecom Act prohibit you from using health as a reason to vote in favor or in opposition to a telecom bill?
Each senator on the panel then questioned the bill’s lead sponsor. Several asked, “If a cell site like the one in Santa Rosa showed up on the utility pole in my backyard, how could I get it removed?”
I moved to the edge of my seat.
The lead sponsor said that AT&T could better answer the question. He pulled up a chair for this man. Gave him a microphone. Mr. AT&T said that municipalities will be able to propose alternates to the cell site locations in the permit applications.
If a municipality gets an application from one provider with two hundred or more cell sites and must respond to it within thirty days, and no one wants a cell site beside their house or their kid’s school, what alternates would be possible?
“And,” AT&T’s man assured the senators, “the cell sites would not be deployed in residential areas.”
Really? Why not?
A senator persisted. If one did show up in his yard, what could he do?
“You could make a comment,” AT&T’s lobbyist said.
A senator proposed a “do pass.” All but one voted in favor of the bill.
On Sunday, February 11, the Santa Fe New Mexican‘s legislative roundup reported that several lawmakers received more emails about a proposal to require two license plates on each vehicle than about any other piece of legislation.
The Wireless Consumer Infrastructure Investment Act passed all of its requisite committees. Senate and House versions were negotiated to make a unified bill. The Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House voted against the amended Wireless Consumer Act; but they were definitively outnumbered. The Act passed, and the governor signed it into law on February 28.
Around the U.S.
More than 23 states have passed bills that streamline the process of permitting telecoms’ PROW access.
California’s informed and activist citizenry (vocal that it wants secure, safe, affordable web access and landlines maintained) got Governor Jerry Brown to veto SB649 on October 15, 2017. Still, cities like Santa Rosa have cell sites cropping up without neighborhood notification or public hearings. Verizon recently proposed installing 92 new cell sites in Palo Alto. A woman in New York state looked up from washing dishes and saw a cell site getting installed on the utility pole near her kitchen.
Then, on March 23, less than 24 hours after receiving the 2232 page “Omnibus Bill,” the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, Congress passed it and the president signed it–though no one read it. The bill includes “Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services Act of 2018,” the RAY BAUM’S Act. RAY BAUM’S scraps review requirements like the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Even if a cell site will sit in a floodplain, as long as “certain conditions” are met, telecoms won’t need to submit an environmental assessment or a safety assessment of the facility.
While state and local rules will still apply, if regional regulations are relatively light, then the new federal rules could lead to environmental harms.
The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has set the stage to fight the “unlawful” RAY BAUM ACT in court. Likewise, the National Trust for Historic Preservation claims that the FCC does not have “legal authority” to eliminate historic review requirements.
What is happening here?
Dr. Gary Olhoeft, professor emeritus of geophysics and electrical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines asks, “When technology changes so fast, regulation can’t keep up. We can’t guarantee that we ‘First do no harm.’”
Naomi Klein calls fast, ubiquitous policy and tech changes like this “shock doctrine.” Her recent piece about what’s happening in Puerto Rico, “The Battle for Paradise,” describes communities struggling for food, electricity, and schools while speculators try to privatize the island’s services and make it a hub for minimally taxed bitcoin development.
Options for the public good
Modern systems’ complexity makes every community vulnerable to privatizing the very provisions that create community.
To create affordable, more secure and healthier Internet access, municipalities like Chatanooga, Tennessee and Longmont, Colorado have organized to deliver fiber optics-to-the-premises as a public utility. Fort Collins, Colorado just passed a bill to do so. San Francisco, Boulder, Traverse City and others are working on it.
Dr. Tim Schoechle advocates for it in his new book, Re-Inventing Wires: The Future of Landlines and Networks.
Satoko Kishimoto and Olivier Petitjean’s 2017 book, Reclaiming Public Services, reports 835 examples of (re)municiaplization of public services worldwide.
This is our choice: municipalities can wait until they have undeniable crises like the ones Puerto Rico faces–or begin now to reclaim public services, including Internet access. David Morris of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance advocates such ownership here.
Ashley Schannauer, the Hearing Officer for the New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission, has advised its five commissioners to vote against the state’s largest utility (PNM’s) proposal to install smart meters. Schannauer noted in his report that no other U.S. regulatory commission has denied a smart meter request. There will be a month of rebuttals, followed by a vote from the five commissioners.
Kris de Decker’s newest paper, “How Much Energy Do We Need?” advocates for ceilings on energy use, not just minimum requirements.
The Global Union Against Radiation Deployment from Space (GUARDS) reports that thirteen companies are competing to cover the Earth with high-speed wireless Internet access from low-orbit satellites within two years. Launching 20,000 rockets for satellites could drastically deplete the ozone and speed climate change.
Plattsburgh, NY could become the first U.S. municipality to put a moratorium on Bitcoin mining. Electricity’s been cheap in Plattburgh; the hundreds or thousands of computers that crunch math problems to generate bitcoins eat up “tons” of electricity. If they continue in Plattsburgh, the town will need millions to upgrade its infrastructure.
the public health
Dr. Joel Moskowitz from UC Berkley’s School of Public Health, provided some context to the results of the National Toxicology Program (NTP)’s studies on cell phone radiation.
An Italian study of rats exposed to GSM cell phone radiation shows significant increase in males’ heart tumors; and this is consistent with NTPs’ results.
A study of humans from Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California, shows that exposure to magnetic field levels commonly found in homes and workplaces increases the risk of miscarriage.
Forbes recently posted an infographic about which smartphones emit the most radiation.
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Thanks to everyone who uses technology as safely as possible, reduces their energy use and EMR emmissions.
To healthier ecosystems and safer communities,