Everyone Wants 5G; Nobody Wants Towers

NIMBY is still alive and well in the age of the Internet of Things.

WaPo’s Robert McCartney reports on “The ugly side of 5G: New cell towers spoil the scenery and crowd people’s homes.” None of it is likely to surprise you.

The telecom giants promise that 5G technology will thrill us with dramatically expanded, ultrafast wireless service. But they don’t mention that it also means installing vastly more equipment, including cell towers, in ugly and intrusive ways.

Property owners and local governments across the country are pushing back with a surge of grass-roots objections pressing the industry not to erect poles that spoil a view or crowd a home and potentially reduce its value.

Such a protest in Dewey Beach, Del. — summer playground for thousands of Washingtonians — has drawn national attention. The resort has emerged as a champion of the movement after persuading Verizon to promise to remove three of five towers that marred the scenery along the dunes.

If the accompanying photo is representative, I’m at least mildly sympathetic:

Obviously, if you’re sitting in a condo right on the beach, you want to look at the seascape, not blight. On the other hand, I’m guessing every occupant of the spaces carries a mobile phone with them constantly and wants spotless coverage and blazing speed.

The battle is playing out in the suburbs, too. The Montgomery County [Maryland] Council on Tuesday will study a zoning change that would make it possible to install 5G antennas within 30 feet of homes in residential areas, as long as they’re on existing poles or replacement poles in the same locations. Neighborhood resistance has long delayed the move, partly because of purported health fears but also because of aesthetic concerns.

The health fears are hokum but aesthetic concerns are real. And, the report notes, it’s a widespread problem across the country.

The challenge facing the critics is that they are battling federal law and the financial and legal might of major companies such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

The Federal Communications Commission has effectively ruled that state and local governments cannot “materially prohibit” carriers from offering 5G service. It wants to encourage the country to take advantage of the new technology as quickly as possible.

Local governments can use their zoning powers in many cases to block unsightly 5G installations. But they often are reluctant to do so, for fear of being sued by the telecom companies or their contractors.

The fights have been longstanding, of course, going back to well before the days of 5G. Where I lived previously, Verizon installed a tower maybe a quarter-mile from my house, in a park no less, poorly disguised as a tree. Still, 5G is amplifying the problem:

5G, which stands for “fifth generation,” promises to raise Internet speeds by as much as a hundredfold over fourth-generation technology.

5G needs many more cellular antennas, called “small cells,” than 4G. That’s because it uses higher-frequency radio waves, which carry much more data but have shorter ranges.

Many small cells are about the size of a large suitcase or a narrow refrigerator. They can often be attached to existing poles. But providers also erect new poles to ensure adequate wireless coverage. Sometimes they put up taller, wider replacement poles to handle the new equipment’s weight.

But balancing aesthetics and the demand for ever-better service is challenging:

Many critics — though not all — are perfectly content to have the 5G equipment installed. They just want the carriers and their contractors to do more to preserve landscapes and stay away from homes.

That was the approach in Dewey Beach. Dan Dionisio, who formed the group Save Dewey Beach, did not object to 5G’s arrival but asked Verizon to find some place for its new poles other than spots where people crossed the dunes to reach the beach.

“The issue isn’t about not wanting better cell service or not having it along our national coastlines. It is an issue of where these poles are being located and what amount of thought is going into those decisions,” Dionisio said.

Which, again, is reasonable as a goal but perhaps unachievable in practice. In densely-populated areas, every possible location for a tower is going to be in someone’s sightline.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Obviously, if you’re sitting in a condo right on the beach, you want to look at the seascape, not blight. On the other hand, I’m guessing every occupant of the spaces carries a mobile phone with them constantly and wants spotless coverage and blazing speed.

    1) I’d bet they spend more time using their phones than looking out at the view.

    2) I don’t get the aesthetic concerns. Unless something is blocking my view of something else, I can simply ignore it. It’s not as good as though it wasn’t there, but just about. The trick is not to become obsessed that one thing is ruining your beautiful view.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    I have a big telephone pole in my back yard, ruining photos of the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign. They could move it to the other side, but that would obstruct my view of the mountains. I think the city should do something about it. . . right after they find a way to help the people living under the freeway. Also, as a general rule, if you’re lucky enough to have lovely views in both directions, you might just be a person who needs to STFU and not whine.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    If the accompanying photo is representative, I’m at least mildly sympathetic:

    The buildings are ugly too. And larger.

    Which, again, is reasonable as a goal but perhaps unachievable in practice. In densely-populated areas, every possible location for a tower is going to be in someone’s sightline.

    Here’s my proposal — create affordable housing in these neighborhoods, and then have the tower block their sightline.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    While I stand by my assertion that the real problem is not enough poor people in these neighborhoods who can have their view blocked, another alternative has struck me — large decorative dinosaurs, 80 feet tall, with 5G cell towers embedded into them!

    (Alternately, enormous pink flamingos.)

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  5. de stijl says:

    If someone wants to put a tower in my yard for a percentage and the responsibility of mowing then yes please.

    Me and some buddies looked at wind farms in the late aughts. Huge initial investment. We got spooked.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    In Seattle a few years back, there were a rash of incidents where people would strip the bark in a circle around a tree in the greenway, killing it, and requiring the removal of the tree — thus opening up their view. Nearly impossible to prove who did it, but you could see the houses that got better views, so it’s pretty obvious.

    Beautiful, tall, old trees that would take decades to grow back to the point where they would block the view again.

    I think I know where 5G towers should be put in the wealthier neighborhoods of Seattle. Don’t even care if they set them up to actually provide 5G.

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  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @Gustopher:..large decorative dinosaurs,..

    California town settles lawsuit over controversial Fred Flintstone house
    The town, however, called the towering dinosaurs and life-size sculptures “a highly visible eyesore”…

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  8. Mister Bluster says:

    When Makanda Township widened the private road I live on the local electric utility placed a pole on the easement as the existing conductors were sagging. One of my neighbors asked me if I thought that the pole should be moved as he thought it was ugly. There’s no way he could see it from his house even in the winter when all the leaves were off the trees which means that the only time he would notice it was when he was driving by on the way in or out of his place.
    “No. It doesn’t bother me at all. Since I am retired I can look out the kitchen window and know that I won’t have to further destroy my knees by climbing that pole or any other like I did when I was working for the phone company for 35 years. Besides every now and then I see an owl perched on top. Life in the country.”
    I almost said: Aren’t you supposed to be looking at the road in front of you when you’re driving? Move along. Nothing for you to see here.
    I bit my tongue. Less said to the neighbors the better.

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  9. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I have a big telephone pole in my back yard, ruining photos of the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign. They could move it to the other side, but that would obstruct my view of the mountains. I think the city should do something about it…

    The city we moved to last year (pop about 180K) is unique in my life experience — 99% of all the electricity, telephone, and cable distribution plant is underground. The municipal power company started putting new stuff underground in 1948 because they guessed — and I use that word because I know how systems engineering worked in those days — that in the long run it would be cheaper and safer. In 1968 they had a modest surplus so converted a couple of blocks of downtown from aerial to underground as an experiment. So many people liked it the voters approved a small rate hike to cover the costs of burying all the distribution.

    A few years ago we had a bomb cyclone and hundreds of thousands of customers in the area lost power. One person in this city lost power, because an old fence blew over and smashed the electric meter on the side of their house.

    If you hunt you can find the 4G antennas, almost all disguised as part of something else tall. Don’t know how the carriers are going to deal with 5G.

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  10. MarkedMan says:

    A couple of observations.

    It would require very little cost and effort to surround all the cables and antennas with a neutral looking enclosure transparent to wireless signals.

    Michael brings up an interesting point. If you live in a suburb or rural area take a look outside and see the amount of wires, insulators, junction boxes, transformers, etc hanging from leaning creosote stained poles. You’ve seen them your whole life and so don’t even notice them. But if you really look you’ll get an appreciation for just how butt ugly they really are. So, are cell towers ugly? Yes. But are they even one tenth as ugly as what already exists?

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: @Gustopher: Tastes certainly differ, but for me the element in the picture that seems ugliest is the gravel expanse behind the LH house (with what appears to be covered vehicle parking–at least for cars, maybe the jacked up trucks people buy these days won’t fit) for the cars of the owners 4o closest friends.

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  12. Mister Bluster says:

    @MarkedMan:..you’ll get an appreciation for just how butt ugly they really are.

    For 35 years those butt ugly poles provided work for me. Work that I enjoyed. Outside all the time. Other than the damage to my knees from climbing poles and ladders I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There was a fair amount of telephone facilities that I worked that were direct buried in the earth.
    Of course while working at ground level was easy on the knees there were too many times I had to touch a shovel to dig up bad spots where water had penetrared the telephone cable. Buried facilities didn’t stop people from griping either. Can’t tell you how many times customers would bitch about the ugly pedestals that housed the terminals that provided the service to their homes. They would even whine about the orange paint that I would mark their lawns with to show where telephone cable was buried so they wouldn’t damage it when they tilled for their gardens.

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  13. grumpy realist says:

    My condo building has a big huge tower on top of it, so no, no problem.

    The same people who are worried about the aesthetics are the same idiots continually bitching that they don’t have the equivalent of a T1 coming to their house. And if the companies said “ok, we’ll put everything underground; here’s the price” the squeals could be heard from the Moon.

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  14. de stijl says:

    @grumpy realist:

    People who bitch about aesthetics vs. utility can kiss my keister.

    You know, I can get their POV to an extent.

    Also not. I think wind farms look amazing. The semi-synchronized whoosh whoosh whoosh.

    The coal that did not get burned is cool too.

    I used to drive south to Des Moines on Sunday afternoons alongside massive wind farms. Friday afternoons north.

    Stick some new gen photovoltaics on the wings and double it up.

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  15. Mikey says:

    @MarkedMan:

    It would require very little cost and effort to surround all the cables and antennas with a neutral looking enclosure transparent to wireless signals.

    Near my house is a very tall telecommunications tower (cell, terrestrial microwave, probably police LMR as well) that has been camouflaged as a tall evergreen. Poorly. VERY poorly. Really, it’s so ugly, it would have looked better had they done nothing.

    But it is good for a laugh, so there’s that.

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  16. Mikey says:

    @Michael Cain: Most of these services are buried where I live, as well. We have maintained power through some of the worst weather events to hit the DC metro area, while our friends who live in nearby areas that have aerial wiring have lost power for days. And on the rare occasions we have lost power, it has been restored relatively quickly, because the issue would be at the local substation rather than requiring a crew to get around to repairing poles and wires.

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  17. Michael Cain says:

    @grumpy realist:

    The same people who are worried about the aesthetics are the same idiots continually bitching that they don’t have the equivalent of a T1 coming to their house. And if the companies said “ok, we’ll put everything underground; here’s the price” the squeals could be heard from the Moon.

    A T1 is only 1.5 Mbps symmetric. Comcast is selling me much better than that on buried HFC (hybrid fiber coax): 200 Mbps downstream, 6 Mbps up, at what I think is a reasonable price. Sometime later this year the buried municipal fiber will reach us and for the same price Comcast is charging we will be able to get nominal 1 Gbps symmetric (work at home people down the road have told me that the increased upstream speed is life-changing). At that point the limitation all of our home devices, and phones when we’re at home, will have is how well the wifi performs. Even some of that could be circumvented since the townhouse has an ether-switch in the basement with a 1000BaseT drop into each bedroom and the living room.

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  18. Michael Cain says:

    @Mikey: Where we live in Fort Collins has absolutely the cleanest power of anyplace I’ve ever lived. In nine months none of the appliance electronics have reset. I’ve heard the UPS in my office trip and reset on one occasion: we were having 45 knot straight line winds with wet snow. I found out later that the combination was bringing the lines on one of the transmission runs close enough together to arc and produce the voltage fluctuation. We’re just getting to our first monsoon thunderstorm season which should be the big test.

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  19. de stijl says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Their eyesore is my “That is so fucking cool!”
    It is quite well done. It nails the aesthetic well.

    Flintstone iconography is old slanted and has no new adherents. 10 years from now no one cares.

    Look back at singular comics from 1930. One survived.

    The Flintstones were of a time and a place that exists no more. A cheeky reinvention of The Honeymooners. Neither have modern salience.

    There is no new Flintstones IP backed by a megabucks company. City hall will lose this year, but 10 years out they will win.

    It is a beautiful fight against city hall. Fight on!

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  20. de stijl says:

    @Mikey:

    In no way am I advocating anarchy or revolution, but that ugly faux tree is an obvious target, Yes?

    Push come to shove, you might want to mark the position.

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  21. grumpy realist says:

    @de stijl: There’s a great trip in Illinois taking the non-interstates from I-55 south down to I-72 which takes you through several wind farms. Driving on that road on a foggy day with a mild wind turning the blades slowly is a fascinating experience. I felt like I was in a SF movie with some giant aliens roving over the landscape.

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  22. Moderate Mom says:

    I noticed a new cell tower going up just outside my neighborhood and couldn’t believe how tall the darn thing is. If I was in the neighborhood directly abutting the tower, I’d probably complain too. It’s an eyesore.

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  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I don’t know much about 5G, but that photo is not at all reminiscent of the cell towers we have erected around here. For starters, It is no where near the 150′ ht of ours. It also does not have the steel tripod structure, the 1-2 acre on the ground foot print, the ancillary equipment or electricity supply. We just had a new one put in about 5 miles away and while I can’t say for sure, I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t 5G compatible. I don’t know how much the landowner is getting for leasing the land and the access easement but for as much as they gave up, I’d bet it covers half their yearly mortgage payments or better. I’d never allow one on my land.

    Especially since it hasn’t improved my cell reception here at all.

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  24. DrDaveT says:

    Obviously, if you’re sitting in a condo right on the beach, you want to look at the seascape, not blight.

    In the photo provided, the cell tower is the least ugly man-made feature, at least to my eye. Beach condo communities are not known for their aesthetic discrimination.

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