5G Feb. 10 2023 Berkshire Eagle Comment

Another month, another Berkshire community facing debate about the siting and safety of cell towers.

Now that the controversy has been transmitted to Great Barrington, our reaction is the same as when similar conflicts cropped up in Pittsfield, Lenox and Sheffield: We need better data and an updated regulatory structure for municipal officials to lean on when confronting these debates about wireless communications facilities.

With the Great Barrington town clerk’s certification of a residential petition, it looks like annual town meeting voters will decide whether to ban fifth-generation (or “5G”) cellular telephone technology until the government reviews radiofrequency emissions safety standards. Unfortunately, Great Barrington can expect a similarly heated run-up to that May 1 meeting as we saw in Lenox ahead of that town’s vote on a wireless facilities bylaw.

That proposed bylaw fell amid a vociferous campaign opposing new cell towers based on claims that the structures pose imminent health threats to surrounding populations. This underscores the bind local officials find themselves in while navigating a pressing infrastructure issue. Municipal officials, from the Pittsfield Board of Health to the Lenox Planning Board, are pressed by a vocal contingency of constituents who claim 5G technology and other wireless communication facilities pose myriad health threats, from headaches and tinnitus to nausea and cancer.

Even if local officials are completely convinced of these claims, they are between a rock and a hard place as wireless demand increases. Residents and businesses want better service; schoolchildren and homebound folks need high-speed connections need better wireless; first responders worry about the ability to field emergency calls even from some busy areas like downtown Lenox. Meanwhile, municipal officials don’t have much procedural wiggle room anyway, as local governments seeking to restrict the number or placement of cell towers are limited by federal telecommunications law.

We are skeptical of the more far-reaching health claims from the most strident cell tower opponents. The most-vocal minority often exaggerates the conclusions and certainty of clinical research on radiofrequency emissions while downplaying other biases nearby homeowners often hold against cell towers like impact on their property’s view or valuation.

Still, as we’ve noted, some cell tower opponents have a point: As wireless technologies’ capabilities and presence have expanded, the regulatory framework around them has not. Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and telecom giants like Verizon point to operational rules developed in the previous millennium before mobile devices and wireless infrastructure were as ubiquitous and advanced as they now are.

That must change, and our state and federal leaders should see the need for that update as their municipal counterparts continue to trip over these wires.

Legislation previously filed on Beacon Hill could kickstart this necessary exploratory mission. In the last two sessions, bills that would establish a state 5G technology task force have languished, but they’re just what the situation demands. The most recent version of the bill would create a blue-ribbon committee bringing together lawmakers, regulators, state tech officials and business representatives to review the current state of wireless communications regulation and recommend relevant updates for the 5G era.

While the last two bills were sent to die in a study order, we hope state lawmakers — especially Berkshire delegates seeing more of their communities entrenched in these debates — see the benefit of pursuing such legislation in this new session. In addition to lawmakers, business figures and tech experts, it should involve health experts as well, since medical concerns fuel the tower tiffs for many towns.

Forming a state committee might not be the bold action some seek. But our communities require hard data — not just the talking points of the telecom industry and anti-tower advocates — that civilians and officials alike can turn to as these debates inevitably intensify. We have to start somewhere, and a meaningful state effort could build momentum for a more robust look at the federal level as well. Whatever information gleaned will be unlikely to move those dug in deep on either side, but we desperately need some broader and better-informed concensus on a topic where we have little to none.

This matter is complex as it is pressing. We aren’t experts on the intersection of public health and wireless technology. Neither are most town meeting voters in Lenox or Great Barrington. We have lawmakers and regulators for good reason, part of which is to avoid crafting policy on complex technological and infrastructure matters via simple referendum with no weight given to expertise. Now, though, the government must do the job it’s uniquely equipped to perform and objectively seek answers to public health questions popping up in town halls and public meetings across the region. Only then will we be well-positioned for a long overdue software update to the rules and regulations around cell towers. They are all that municipal officials have to rely on, and the multiplying local debates over 5G show they’re outdated and insufficient.

Beacon Hill won’t have time to diffuse that debate before it pressurizes Great Barrington’s town meeting warrant in May, but legislators should act swiftly to address the safety concerns and procedural headaches spreading through Massachusetts communities.


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