STAMFORD – In 2021, Gov. Ned Lamont’s office began a mediation between Connecticut’s five big cities and the three major telecommunications companies in the state.
According to a Stamford legal department memo, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile wanted to install fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile telecommunication equipment on city-owned utility poles.
The telecom giants were taking advantage of a 2018 order from the Federal Communications Commission that, to foster technological progress, cities may not interfere with the placement of radios, antennas, transmitters and other equipment on public rights of way, according to the memo.
Lamont is all for 5G mobile technology, and before the mediation touted the networks as significantly faster and more responsive, and would allow connection of as many as 100 times more wireless devices – a technological leap that would benefit residents and business.
His office sought the mediation to ease the process for cities, given that the federal government had blocked them from regulating the use of their own property.
Now, after a year and a half of talking, the administration has brokered an agreement between two of the telecoms, AT&T and Verizon, and the cities – Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury. The agreement, which created a template for the applications the telecoms will bring before cities to install 5G equipment, is making its way before the local legislative bodies.
So far, Bridgeport and Hartford have approved the template. New Haven and Waterbury are expected to approve it soon.
But, in Stamford, a committee of the Board of Representatives last week voted overwhelmingly to reject it, despite warnings from a retired judge and a lawyer who acted as arbitrators in the deal, plus a city attorney.
‘End of the discussion’
City representatives have raised the concern that the higher-frequency radio transmissions of 5G are a form of environmental pollution, and voiced fears that the technology could damage human cells and harm wildlife and plants.
During the committee meeting, all three attorneys told city representatives that they have no authority in the public-health debate. If the Board of Representatives turns down applications for placement of 5G equipment and the telecoms take the board to court, the board will surely lose, the attorneys said.
Retired Judge Robert Holzberg, who said Lamont asked him to arbitrate the agreement, told representatives that cities have a very limited role in reviewing applications from telecom companies.
“There are well-defined and accepted limitations on municipal authority to regulate the siting of 5G carriers,” Holzberg said. “The rule is that, if the FCC has approved the radio frequency that carriers use, that’s the beginning and the end of the discussion.”
Al Smith, an attorney with Murtha Cullina, said the governor’s office asked him to represent the five cities in the mediation with the telecom carriers. The process “is almost entirely preempted by federal law,” Smith said.
“Reasonable minds might have different opinions about whether that is fair or wise, but the law is clear. Carriers have considerable rights to place equipment in rights of way, and municipalities have limited ability to regulate that equipment,” Smith said. “The law is stacked in favor of the carriers.”
Stamford Assistant Corporation Counsel Burt Rosenberg sent the committee a memo acknowledging that members “have expressed reservations about the installation of 5G apparatus based upon concerns that the radio frequency radiation emitted by the equipment poses a threat to public health.”
Rosenberg provided documents explaining a 2021 decision by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority involving a Shippan Avenue resident, Len Bucaj, who claimed that the installation of 5G equipment on a utility pole in front of his house threatened his health.
PURA ruled against Bucaj, saying the emissions were within FCC limits and met federal safety requirements, Rosenberg wrote.
AT&T “presented measurements of radio frequency radiation demonstrating that the emissions were far below permitted standards,” the city attorney wrote. “I wish to submit these documents to the committee to demonstrate that PURA takes vigorous measures to ensure the safety of 5G installations.”
But, according to a panel of experts invited to speak to the Land Use Committee, the case raised by Rosenberg illustrates the problem with evaluations of the safety of 5G technology – AT&T had its own witness testify that AT&T’s radio frequency emissions were safe, and the state regulatory agency accepted it.
That happens at the federal level, said Kent Chamberlin, a professor emeritus at University of New Hampshire, with speciality in the propagation of radio waves, and vice chair of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation. The commission, founded in 2021, has been critical of current approaches to regulating electromagnetic fields exposure.
“The FCC is dominated by the industries it presumably regulates,” Chamberlin said.
State Rep. David Michel of Stamford, an outspoken environmental protection advocate, assembled the panel to present information and take questions from the Land Use Committee as it considered approving the template for AT&T and Verizon applications to install 5G equipment.
City Rep. Jim Grunberger asked how many more towers Stamford residents can expect.
“Could it be in the hundreds?” Grunberger asked.
It’s possible, said Smith, the attorney.
“I don’t think we should back away from this because of the threat of a lawsuit,” Grunberger said. “If we have to be a test case on this, we should be a test case.”
City Rep. Don Mays said the opposite.
“If cities try to go against the FCC rules, the carriers will sue the cities,” Mays said. “And I don’t want to subject this city to that.”
Mays said he wants to hear more about studies that find that cell phones and towers are safe because radio frequency radiation levels are too low to do harm.
Rosenberg, the city attorney, strongly agreed. He asked the Land Use Committee chair to hold the discussion until its November meeting so he can “produce PURA records regarding compliance with 4G and 5G radio frequency radiation standards.”
Rosenberg said he “would like the opportunity to present evidence that contradicts the evidence of tonight’s witnesses. I represent the [Mayor Caroline Simmons] administration, and we are entitled to due process. But if I am not allowed to examine the witnesses on behalf of the administration, in my opinion, you are depriving the administration of its due-process rights.”
One of the experts, Blake Levitt, an author and former New York Times science reporter, responded to Rosenberg’s remark.
“I would like to point out to him that we are not witnesses; we are panelists invited to this” committee meeting, Levitt said. “This is not a court of law and neither is the mayor’s office.”
Grunberger also reacted to Rosenberg’s remark.
“Attorney Rosenberg says he represents the administration,” Grunberger said. “But he also represents the Board of Representatives.”
City Rep. Terry Adams said Rosenberg should have a chance to rebut the experts’ presentation and made a motion for the committee to hold the discussion. His motion was not seconded so it went to a vote.
Committee members decided, 8-1, to recommend that the full board reject the telecom agreement on 5G equipment installation applications. Adams was the “no” vote. The board is scheduled to take it up at its Nov. 8 meeting.
According to the agreement, AT&T and Verizon must notify city officials in advance about where they plan to install equipment. It sets time frames for cities to respond to telecom applications; sets the fees telecoms must pay for installing equipment on city property; and allows cities to determine the size and appearance of the equipment, and construction requirements to ensure safe installation and maintenance of public utility poles
Editor’s note: State Rep. David Michel of Stamford is not a former member of the Stamford Board of Representatives as was previously written. This story has been updated.