Industry-backed cellphone tower bill advances despite consumer concerns

Industry-backed cellphone tower bill advances despite consumer concerns

Small cell tower. (Photo licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.)

A bill to limit local regulation of small cell towers is moving to a full House vote, despite concerns over health effects and local control of tower sites.

House Bill 310, backed by the communications industry, is a first step to the creation of 5G wireless networks throughout North Carolina. But such networks would rely on millions of small cell towers rather than fewer large ones. The bill would allow companies to install them in public right of way areas.

CTIA, a wireless industry advocacy group, claims the wireless companies will invest hundreds of millions in North Carolina’s largest cities to establish the networks – including more than $600 million in Charlotte and over $300 million in Raleigh and Greensboro.

“What will happen, just like anything else, is the investments will start in more densely populated areas but it will continue to places like my district,” said Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), the bill’s primary sponsor.

Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln)

“As the costs go down, we’ll see that spread to the more rural areas,” Saine said.

The networks will not just make mobile phone service faster and cheaper, advocates say, but will improve things like traffic monitoring and flood and natural disaster alerts.

But critics of the bill say two important points aren’t being discussed: Negative health effects of so many small cell towers and the creeping loss of municipal regulation over the industry.

Laura Combs, a Raleigh resident urging lawmakers to reject the bill, said ignoring existing science – including a $25 million National Institutes of Health studies on the effects of cell phone radiation – is reckless.

Most people don’t acknowledge the possible health effects of even larger, existing cell towers, Combs said – never mind a new wave of smaller cell towers in the public rights of way and in residential areas. A provision of the bill does exempt single-family homes from housing the smaller towers – but it is silent on multiple-family dwellings like apartment buildings, Combs said.

“Low income families tend to live in multi-family homes more often,” Combs said. “How many people are not even going to be aware they have these things on their buildings?”

“Moving forward with this technology in residential areas when people can’t have control of what happens in their own homes – that’s an invasion of human rights in my opinion,” Combs said. “We should be able to have a say in what is put on the street lights outside of our homes.”

“It’s also just a complete breakdown of democracy that local government can’t site this type of facility,” Combs said. “You hear them talk about the vast number of stakeholders they worked with – but they did not to my knowledge speak with citizens. They should be holding listening meetings, workshopping this around the state.”

Saine, who has received more than $20,000 from industries that would benefit from the bill , has not shown interest in those sorts of discussions, Combs said.

An earlier version of the bill would have prevented local governments from denying permits for the smaller towers altogether. The North Carolina League of Municipalities opposed that version. The compromise version that passed the House Finance Committee Tuesday morning still limits municipal authority over how the towers will be deployed, but gives them more zoning and design standard input. The League of Municipalities is now officially neutral, though it has expressed concerns over the public benefits of giving wireless companies access to rights of way.

“Their being neutral means the bill is not as bad as it was,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s now a good bill, but they may have gotten enough changes that they’re not opposing it now.”

Harrison, a staunch environmental advocate, said she hasn’t been impressed by industry-financed studies bandied about to support the bill.

“Relying on industry to tell you if something is safe – it reminds me of the tobacco industry telling you cigarettes are perfectly safe,” Harrison said.

In states like California, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio are pushing back hard on similar legislation.

In Ohio, the city of Cleveland and 79 other municipalities are suing the state over local regulation of wireless equipment.

Mary Anne Tierney, a nurse who spent 15 years as a public health educator, said more states – including North Carolina – need that sort of movement.

“Many people are sensitive to this radiation without knowing it,” Tierney said. “There are a wide array of symptoms – sleeplessness, anxiety, heart arrhythmia.”

But the convenience, fun and ubiquity of mobile phones and Wi-Fi make it difficult to talk about the uncomfortable scientific information about their health effects, Tierney said.

“The power of the wireless industry to promote their products, which people love, is unprecedented. It’s hard for people to believe that there may be something dangerous about these devices to which they’re now addicted.”

Tierney works with the Environmental Health Trust and her own nonprofit, Safe Tech Kids NC. She and other advocates aren’t done fighting the legislation, she said, despite its swift progress toward becoming law.

“The medical community will continue to try to inform our representatives and our senators,” Tierney said. “We’re also reaching out to the governor.”

“This bill is going to reduce property values, it’s going to create a health hazard and it’s taking municipal rights away,” Tierney said. “We need to talk about those things.”

(Photo by Rohanmkth licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.)