An Electronic Silent Spring – September, 2017 Newsletter from Katie Singer

An Electronic Silent Spring
September, 2017 Newsletter from Katie Singer

Q&A on the way to 5G

(5th generation mobile infrastructure)

by Janet Newton and Katie Singer

To streamline installation of cellular antennas, Santa Fe, New Mexico’s City Council passed a bill that revises its telecom ordinance. Now, the City must promulgate safety regulations required by federal policy. Telecom corporations must comply with these regulations when they install antennas on public right-of-ways (PROWs) such as traffic lights and lamp posts. Because of the City’s revised ordinance, telecoms that comply with these regulations can then install antennas without neighborhood notification, public hearing or permit. PROW-mounted antennas (typically “small cells”) will provide citywide Wi-Fi and cellular services.

Over 150 people attended the August 30 hearing in Santa Fe. Many voiced concerns about health hazards caused by exposure to antennas’ electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emissions and about loss of democratic process. Several questioned liability issues: in the event that an antenna catches fire or collapses. Some questioned who will monitor the antennas’ EMR emissions to ensure that rooftop workers will not be exposed to EMR in excess of allowable federal limits.

City Attorney Kelley Brennan advised the Councilors that

* the City must obey federal rules. When antennas are installed on existing structures (such as PROWs), FCC requires municipalities to respond to telecom corporations’ requests within 90 days. Also, federal law prohibits the City from considering EMR exposure’s public health effects.

* The FCC, not the City, is responsible for monitoring antenna emissions.

* In the event of an antenna fire or collapse, Brennan’s stated opinion was that the City would not be liable.

The bill’s unanimous passage, at 12:30 am August 31, 2017, left people asking many questions:


Why don’t health concerns move legislators voting on wireless infrastructure?  

  1. According to Section 704 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, if a corporation requests a permit to install cellular services, municipalities are prohibited from basing their decisions on environmental or health concerns as long as the antenna’s radiation emissions comply with FCC safety limits.
  2. If the written record demonstrates that a municipality denies a permit based on environmental or health concerns, then the telecom corporation can sue the City to get the denial reversed in federal court.
  3. No municipality wants a lawsuit.


Why would legislators eliminate local authority over telecom facilities?

  1. Federal Acts impose a “shot-clock” on permits on existing structures (including PROWs): municipalities must respond to corporate requests to permit installation of antennas within 90 days. If the municipality takes longer than 90 days to respond to the corporation’s request, then the permit is automatically granted.
  2. Most municipalities have limited resources. Hiring lawyers to respond to telecom corporations’ requests is expensive. (One proposal can easily include hundreds of detailed pages.)
  3. With “small cells” (wherein antennas are mounted on lamp posts, traffic lights and other PROWs) and Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) that provide “blanket” cellular and Internet coverage throughout a municipality, the city and the telecom corporation deal with only one permit request. Requiring neighborhood notification, public hearing and a permit on each antenna in a wireless, citywide system, would be costly and would likely take more than the 90-day federal shot-clock allows.


What might move legislators to maintain local authority over telecom facilities, includingon public right-of-ways?

  1. Liability: Say that a PROW (i.e. a lamp post) with an antenna on it catches fire. Say that the fire spreads and burns down a house. Who will be liable? The municipality? The telecom corporation? The homeowner?
  2. No municipality wants liability for a fire.
  3. Say that on a windy day, an antenna blows off of a PROW (i.e. a traffic light), smashes a car and causes the driver to crash into another car. Who will be liable? If ice blows off of the antenna onto a vehicle or a pedestrian, who will be liable?
  4. The municipality must demonstrate that its liability insurance or the telecom corporation’s insurance will cover damages.
  5. Most if not all states have laws that require that a licensed professional engineer (PE) certify that installations of electrical infrastructure safeguard the public’s life, health and property…when the public has access to the installation (such as antennas on PROWs).
  6. The municipality needs to demonstrate that its RF safety plan complies with FCC/OSHA guideline to protect workers. In the event that overexposure of EMR injures a worker, will the City’s liability insurance cover damages?


Why do we need citywide Wi-Fi?

  1. Demand for connectivity continues to increase. The era of the Internet of Things (machine-to-machine communication) has begun. Agri-business, banking, GPS/transportation networks, education, news media, medical records, entertainment, you name it…are now based in the Cloud. We’re generating more data than 4G can handle. Our options are a)to install 5G, fifth generation of mobile infrastructure (which PROW-mounted antennas will support) or to install fiber optics (fios) to every building and household. Tenants can then determine whether they stay wired or go wireless for phone and Internet services.
  2. Most individuals expect constant, speedy, mobile Internet access, including to videos, which take lots of data (which 5G can handle).
  3. Businesses expect constant, speedy Internet access. For one example, John Deere and Monsonto now sell tractors whose computers can crunch data about weather patterns, soil moisture, seed options, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides to determine exactly what to plant and spray to yield the most lucrative harvest on a parcel of land. To access the data, these tractors (and their farmers) need sufficient broadband, which 5G can provide. To read more, see ETC Group Jim Thomas’ paper, “Software vs. Hardware vs. Nowhere: Deer & Co. is becoming ‘Monsanto in a Box.'”


Why not use fiber optics (fios)? It’s faster and more secure than wireless.

  1. Computerized tractors need wireless access to data in the Internet.
  2. Individuals walking on the street or traveling in vehicles expect mobile Internet access. Much of the public prefers mobility over security and health concerns.
  3. Telecom corporations prefer wireless services (mobile phones, Wi-Fi) over fios because wireless services are minimally taxed. Wired services (hardwired telephones and Internet access delivered by landlines or fiber optics) are taxed significantly.


What other cities and states face legislation like Santa Fe has passed? 

Environmental Health Trust has compiled lists of US states with bills that support local control of wireless facilities on PROWs and states with bills that pre-empt local authority and allow telecom corporations to place antennas near homes with zero or minimal community input.

In California, more than 200 cities oppose SB649 (which will allow antennas on PROWs without local review). The bill has passed the California Senate. At this writing, it awaits a vote in the California House. Read more at


Given that telecom corporations are deploying more digital, wireless infrastructure, how can a household protect itself from EMR exposure and hacking? 

  1. Decrease your use of mobile phone and wireless Internet services.
  2. Wherever possible, use corded landline telephones. Access the Internet via wired service.
  3. While sleeping, keep your bedroom free of electronics: don’t just turn TVs (etcetera) off. Unplug them. Don’t charge anything in your bedroom or on walls beside the bedroom.
  4. Until you get wired access, keep Wi-Fi off at night for at least 12 hours.
  5. Where possible, opt for an analog-mechanical electric meter, NOT a digital or wireless “smart” meter.
  6. Commit to getting informed. Ask friends and neighbors to share ways to reduce your use of mobile technologies.


If you have a smartphone,

Get wise: every time your phone checks in with the nearest cellular antenna to see if you’ve got a message, it emits electromagnetic radiation. To reduce your EMR exposure, turn the phone OFF. Program it to alert you to check for messages every two hours (and zap you much less).

To reduce your risk of screen-addiction, Tristan Harris, former ethicist at Google, suggests arranging your screen’s first page so that only maps, calendar, camera and notes are available. Put apps, Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram on 2nd or 3rd pages. Get a wind-up alarm clock so that your phone isn’t the first thing you start with in the morning. (Beware of the magnetic fields emitted by digital/electric alarm clocks.)



Our biggest problem 

In recent blogposts, Richard Heinberg, Senior Felow at the Post Carbon Institute, explains that climate change, overpopulation and loss of biodiversity are not our biggest problems. Rather, it’s overshoot: we ask the Earth to provide more than it can carry. This upsets the ecological systems we depend on for survival. Until we “address this system imbalance,” Heinberg says, “symptomatic treatment…will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgapmeasures that are ultimately destined to fail.” Heinberg also names that we’re “asking technology to solve problems that demand human moral intervention.”

If Heinberg is correct, then as school begins, we need to commit to helping children learn to reduce use of energy-demanding electronics and think critically, exercise self-control, resolve conflicts; improve decision-making skills and strengthen awareness of nature and other people through direct relating. We need to help children see technology as a tool, not as an appendage–especially before reading, writing and math skills are mastered on paper.

Read Richard Heinberg’s recent blogs–and ask friends to read them:

  1. “There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation and Biodivirsity Loss.”
  2. Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us.”


As school begins, check out

Inviting Discussion about Safer Tech Use in Schools.” by Katie Singer. This paper offers resources and options for screen-time addiction; security and privacy; EMR exposure (including on school vehicles); medical implants and electronic interference; emergency preparedness; and liability re cell towers and phones on campus. This call for discussion is endorsed by 20 prominent physicians and educators.

Malinda Gates has voiced concerns about her children’s media use in the Washington Post.

Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy: A Practical Guide for Protecting Your Child’s Sensitive School Data from Snoops, Hackers and Marketers, prepared by the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and the Campagin for a Commercial-Free Childhood, May, 2017.


Please contribute! to keep this newsletter and other projects going.

Katie Singer is currently writing about the Internet’s energy demands. (The Internet is the largest thing that humanity has built; and it requires electricity, water, and conflict minerals….).


Thanks to everyone who aims to use electronics as safely as possible, reduces their energy use and EMR emissions.

To healthier ecosystems and safer communities,
Katie Singer



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