STAMFORD – The Board of Representatives has rejected an agreement, brokered by the governor’s office, that set terms for allowing telecommunications carriers to install 5G equipment on city-owned utility poles.
Twenty-one city representatives Wednesday decided against accepting the state’s template for applications by telecoms that seek to place antennas and other equipment on poles in public rights of way.
Representatives said they were persuaded by research presented during an October meeting of the board’s Land Use Committee claiming to show that 5G technology can cause brain damage, headaches, memory loss, damage to reproductive organs and the nervous system, and genetic damage, as well as harm to trees, birds, insects and wildlife.
They rejected the state’s application template despite advice from Gov. Ned Lamont’s mediation panel and city attorneys who said they would lose in court if telecom companies are prevented from using public utility poles and they sue. Federal law prohibits local governments from legislating on the alleged health risks of radiofrequency radiation emitted by 5G antennas, the attorneys said.
City Rep. Sean Boeger said the possibility of losing in court should not be a factor in the deliberations of legislative bodies.
“The threat of whether we’re going to be sued is not a winning argument when a potential health concern is involved,” Boeger said. “We can’t frame our decisions off that.”
Five representatives voted to accept the state’s application template, which would require the telecoms to tell city officials where the antennas would be installed and allow officials to determine the size and appearance of the equipment on the poles.
City Rep. Don Mays, an engineer and retired safety officer for a telecom company, said he questions the findings of the panelists who addressed the board last month. The range of 5G is short, and radiation falls off as you move away from it, Mays said.
“The worst offender is not these small cell towers (atop utility poles) and it’s not 5G,” Mays said. “Most radiation exposure is from cellphones. That’s the way to eliminate radiation exposure, but how many people are willing to give up their cellphones? We’ve become dependent on them. They cause radiation even when we’re not talking on them. We’re exposed from inside our homes.”
Eight representatives abstained from voting, some saying they did not have enough information to decide.
“I have to have both sides,” city Rep. Jonathan Jacobson said. “I’m lost.”
City Rep. Eric Morson said he wanted to hear the conclusions of more studies as he weighed possible health risks against safety risks.
An increasing number of people have no land line or fiber optic connection, Morson said, and “they rely completely on cell service. … There is a growing need for cell service because, for more people, it’s the only option. Maybe the greater risk is not being able to communicate from your home.”
So far Stamford has delivered the only rejection among the five cities targeted in the mediation initiated by Lamont’s office to advance faster, wider-ranging mobile technology for Connecticut residents and businesses.
Al Smith, an attorney with Murtha Cullina who represented the cities in the state mediation, said Thursday that officials in Bridgeport and Hartford have approved the template, and New Haven and Waterbury have not yet acted.
In Stamford, three residents Wednesday called in to urge city representatives to reject the agreement during the public comment portion of the board’s virtual meeting.
Resident Neil Sherman said “the city has an obligation to protect citizens from potentially dangerous modalities.”
City officials should not turn over the rights to publicly owned poles to contractors who can place the equipment “close to homes and schools without limitation to the number of antennas,” Sherman said. “They operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
A fourth caller was attorney Joseph Sandri, a former Stamford resident and one of the panelists who spoke during the board’s committee meeting last month.
Sandri was among the attorneys in a 2021 case, Environmental Health Trust vs. Federal Communications Commission, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit ruled that the federal agency failed to explain how its regulations protect the public against any harmful effects of wireless radiation.
The case challenged the FCC’s 2019 decision to leave in place regulations dating to 1996 which determine how much radiofrequency radiation exposure from cell phones, cell towers, Wi-Fi and wireless networks is safe. The premise of the case is that the dated guidelines do not consider possible harm from radio frequency radiation at lower levels, and effects of the widespread use of wireless devices that exists 27 years later.
“The FCC rules are now under remand in federal court, and the FCC still has not explained why the rules have not been updated,” Sandri told the board. “The city has the right to independently monitor wireless networks for compliance with the FCC’s ancient exposure rules, so the city should be given the opportunity to object” to telecom applications to place 5G antenna on publicly owned utility poles.
City Rep. James Grunberger cited the FCC’s defeat in federal court in making his argument to reject the state’s recommendation for telecom applications.
“The federal government does not have guidelines for long-term exposure, so we need to protect our city ourselves, and not succumb to legal threats,” Grunberger said. “Each of these small cells on these poles contains up to 100 antennas, and they’re close to people’s windows. We should assert our ability to reject these antennas. We have to err on the side of caution.”
Mays said a strong case is to be made for better cellular coverage, given all the dead spots in Stamford.
“It’s not just an inconvenience; it inhibits businesses. You may not be able to make a 911 call from your home, or from your car or when you’re out walking,” Mays said. “Rolling out 5G technology to broaden the communication network is extremely important. I think it’s a higher priority than the risk associated with health and safety and the environmental effects, which are highly debated. I believe the risk is very small.”
Asked Thursday whether Stamford can draw up its own application template for telecoms seeking space on city utility poles, Lamont’s deputy communications director, Julia Bergman, said that’s up to Stamford.
“The contract is between the telecom companies and the cities. We played a role in the mediation, but if Stamford wants to change the terms, they have to go directly to the telecom companies,” Bergman said. “We are not a party to the contracts.”
Under the agreement brokered by Lamont’s office, AT&T and Verizon would have to notify city officials in advance about where they plan to install equipment. It sets deadlines for cities to respond to telecom applications; establishes the fees telecoms must pay for installing equipment on city property; and allows cities to determine the size and appearance of the equipment, construction requirements to ensure safe installation, and how public utility poles will be maintained.
It does not specify the number of antennas that would be installed.