By Kevin McKeown
That little box that suddenly appeared on a utility pole or street light near your home isn’t a birdhouse. It’s a 5G technology “small cell” wireless transmitter, and it has some of your neighbors worried.
For years we’ve lived with the older and larger cell phone transmitters, which are often affixed to tall buildings or on standalone poles disguised (unconvincingly) as trees.
The new 5G cells are different. They provide more reliable voice service and extremely high-speed data transfers for smartphones, but they broadcast effectively over a much shorter distance than the old cells.
That means there must be many more of the 5G cells, much closer together, and even deep within residential neighborhoods. City staff in a recent report advised the City Council that just within Santa Monica as many as 600 small cell sites may be applied for over the next two to three years.
City governments enjoy local control over most land use matters, but the federal government has claimed sovereignty over telecommunications infrastructure, telling cities like Santa Monica that we must accept 5G cells without any meaningful ability to mitigate their impacts.
Let’s be clear we’re not talking about radiation hazards — if only because we’re not allowed to. Starting with the Communications Act of 1996, the federal government has whittled away local control over radiation impacts, saying only “trust us.”
The entity in charge of cell towers and their safe operation is the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC. They have long held that if a cell transmitter has been certified by their engineers as in compliance, local governments cannot restrict their location or operation based on concern over radiation. Any appeal of a 5G “small cell” siting based on radiation concerns must be summarily denied.
Just over a month ago, your City Council heard three such appeals. We certainly sympathized with the residents who made convincing cases that the 5G sitings in question were too close to their bedrooms, for instance, but the cells were FCC certified, and thus we, outranked by federal law, could do nothing about the radiation concerns.
However, at that time, cities still retained some local control over the aesthetics of cell sitings, in terms of how the intrusive appearance was mitigated with camouflage and concealment elements, and whether the cell siting would interfere with other uses of the public right-of-way.
Our local cell control law had been written for the older, larger cell phone towers, not the relatively less intrusive appearance of small cell 5G transmitters. The City Council on August 28th asked staff to return as soon as possible with an updated ordinance that might give us more control over these new 5G installations.
I thought we’d be ready with a local law, for local control, to protect Santa Monica residents from unreasonable intrusions and impacts.
Then, last Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission issued a harsh new regulatory declaration, further usurping local control over rapidly proliferating small cell installations.
Under the new rules, cities like Santa Monica have even less time to process small cell applications, no matter how many are filed at one time. If the municipality fails to completely review and process the application before the deadline, the application is deemed approved by default, granted by federal fiat.
Who pays for this? You do, because the new FCC rules limit the application fee the telecomm company must pay to $100. That makes any real study or public outreach a cost to taxpayers, subsidizing the telecomm company.
Most troubling, the new ruling further narrows the already limited grounds on which we are allowed to exert control over a small cell siting.
The telecomm industry and business media claim these restrictions on local control are needed because you, through your local government, are obstructing progress. The morning of the FCC vote on the new ruling, the Wall Street Journal claimed in an editorial that “U.S. cities are throttling deployment (of 5G technology) with extortionist fees… (and) self-serving behavior from local politicians.”
As a resident concerned for your home and your neighborhood, you may feel differently. You can share your dismay over forced small cell deployment with our Congressman, Ted Lieu, or our Senators, Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
The City of Santa Monica, even with its hands tied by the audacious FCC pre-emption, fights above its weight. I will support the strongest possible new local ordinance when it comes back to the Council.
The National League of Cities likely will fight this latest FCC. over-reach, by lobbying Congress and by litigation if necessary. Almost inevitable is an appeal of the FCC ruling to one or more circuit courts, and it’s possible that the little not-birdhouse outside your bedroom window will make it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Kevin McKeown is a City Councilmember, and prior to that served on the Santa Monica Telecommunications Task Force.