Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
NIMBY backlash is complicating the next generation of wireless internet technology, with recent help from the California Supreme Court.
As soon as the first 5G poles went up, the residents of Upper Cole Valley wanted them down.
Later, residents would take issue with the notice that informed the community of plans to install 5G wireless internet equipment—they say it was “poorly affixed to the single pole,” allowing it to either fall off or be blown off; and that San Francisco’s Public Works Department didn’t give them enough time to weigh in on the process.
But adequate warning or not, when Sprint mobile vendor Mobilitie came to the San Francisco neighborhood hawking super-fast internet service, residents had more fundamental concerns.
“Our Upper Cole Valley … neighborhood would suffer harm if the large pole-borne equipment box is installed, on an even taller pole, directly in front of our Excellent Views,” read a complaint from a group of more than 100 residents, which they submitted to the DPW in the hopes of getting Mobilitie’s permit denied. “This indeed ‘detract(s) from the streetscape… that defines (this) individual neighborhood’ and that would adversely affect our home’s and our neighborhood’s … value.”
The city ended up rejecting this appeal and others like it. For now, at least, the 5G network is there to stay in Cole Valley. But the neighborhood’s concerns are echoed in cities across the country.
For 5G boosters, the benefits of installing the wireless technology are obvious: It allows delivery of super-fast internet speeds. But the nimble technology is connected by not-so-nimble infrastructure. To hook up the “small cells” that power 5G grids, wireless providers have to install thick wires and poles and antennae on nearly every block they want to cover, outfitted with equipment that is about the size of a large backpack.
It’s not just that 5G requires a lot of gear, which alone can provoke the not-in-my-backyard backlash that puts a stop to all sorts of projects. It’s also that some people really don’t like it when they see it.
“These things can be quite ugly,” says Christopher Mitchell, the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
5G networks have only just begun to spread—a few providers, including AT&T and Verizon, have started going live in a handful of cities. Already, though, the NIMBY problem looms large for those who want to see the next generation of wireless technology proliferate.
And last month, in what could be a precedent-setting decision, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the aesthetic argument alone can be enough to justify the rejection of new 5G infrastructure.
The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by T-Mobile against the city and county, challenging a 2011 city ordinance limiting telecommunications companies from installing 5G lines and equipment on utility poles. T-Mobile argued that the local law was preempted by state law. Now, a judge has determined it wasn’t, and agreed with San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s argument that putting 5G equipment up on San Francisco’s utility poles could take away from the city’s allure as a tourist destination, by “diminish[ing] the City’s beauty.”
“Private companies don’t have free rein when it comes to using a public resource,” Herrerra said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “San Francisco’s approach strikes the right balance. It allows for innovation and improved technology while ensuring that unsightly poles and equipment don’t mar public views of the Painted Ladies or the Golden Gate Bridge.”
The San Francisco ruling could be a blow not only to telecommunications companies, but to the Federal Communications Commission, which has tried to jumpstart the spread of these networks from the top down.
In an order last year, the FCC gave 5G-toting wireless companies broad powers to sidestep local control over the public right-of-way. If Verizon wants to build a 5G network in a city, the local government is limited in how much it can charge in application fees, and is pushed to approve permits quickly.
The idea, says the FCC, is to remove “regulatory barriers that would unlawfully inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary to support these new services.” Already, these “regulatory obstacles have threatened the widespread deployment of these new services and, in turn, U.S. leadership in 5G,” reads another FCC statement.
These rules also mean cities are limited in how they can respond to residents who are upset about equipment going up near them. Many local leaders have spoken out against the FCC’s rules, dozens of whom have banded together to file a lawsuit to overturn it, which has advanced to the Tenth Circuit.
“[T]he FCC is forcing cities to race to the courthouse to defend the most basic of local government rights—the authority to manage and seek fair compensation from private users that seek to employ public assets,” Tom Cochran, the CEO and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in a statement.
“I don’t have an objection to 5G or deploying 5G,” Montgomery County, Maryland council member-at-large Hans Riemer told CityLab. “I just want to preserve local authority to guide the deployment.”
There are still a few avenues for cities to influence how and where 5G equipment is installed, though. If local governments have clear and reasonable design guidelines in place before companies apply to build facilities, for example, the companies have to follow them. Localities are also allowed to mandate that some—but not all—equipment be put underground.
The FCC included these exemptions to avoid legal blowback, especially from the historic preservation movement, Mitchell says.
“If you can imagine an antennae on the Alamo, or on the grounds of the state capital, or a historic district somewhere—imagine an ugly antennae at Gettysburg!” he said. “Those are the sorts of things I think they wanted to avoid.”
But advocates of the technology maintain that 5G equipment is not particularly obtrusive, especially compared to traditional wireless infrastructure. “It makes very little sense,” reads a letter from an Ohio state representative to the FCC, “for rules designed for 100-foot cell towers to govern the path to deployment for modern equipment called small cells that can fit into a pizza box.”
In Cole Valley’s case, it was the city that pursued 5G, not just the FCC. And in a district whose telecom infrastructure had mostly been put underground, bringing anything above it was seen as an affront to the community’s aesthetics.
“We cannot allow/accept the newly proposed antenna and equipment box which would be bolted and strapped on directly in front of that … bedroom window, obstructing views, light and potentially affecting [our daughter’s] physical safely,” reads a July 2018 email from Brian and Maggie Sedar, who led the counter-effort. “It’s simply too much invasion of this one street pole into and on our home.”
“We didn’t want it, and the city crammed it down our throat,” Maggie Sedar told CityLab.
It’s common to see aesthetic concerns used as a proxy for health concerns over 5G, says Mitchell, despite the lack of credible data to support it.
In Whitefish, a small town in Montana that’s currently taking steps to curb 5G installation preemptively, these fears are colliding, too. According to the Whitefish Pilot, City Attorney Angela Jacobs is moving to create “a city small cell permit” that introduces strict design regulations. 5G facilities, she says, are “ugly and we’re concerned about the potential they have to be extremely unsightly especially in our downtown.” According to the Pilot, she also “notes that many people have health concerns regarding the operation of the 5G facilities.”
No one challenge will spell life or death for 5G, Mitchell says. “The benefits of 5G over the next few years have been dramatically overstated,” he said. “And so I think it’s more important that San Francisco makes sure it protects its aesthetics than it worries it will somehow miss out if it takes six months longer to have 5G saturation.”
In Montgomery County, Riemer says most of the complaints he hears come from neighborhoods with underground utilities, too; or those with decorative lamps, which might have to be replaced with something smaller and sturdier.
“That has people concerned, because they see in their mind the junky, clunky installations that the industry has done in certain locations and they say hey, that’s not what I want in my neighborhood,” he said. “I think the industry could resolve that with real careful attention to the details, and putting in equipment that is context-sensitive and appropriate.”
Telecommunications companies do have tools to adapt to cities’ beauty standards. They can paint the backpack-sized 5G boxes to blend into what’s around them, or dress them up to look like trees. They’ve used these strategies to deal with other aesthetic concerns for decades.
San Francisco is, unsurprisingly, the site of one such successful compromise. In the 1990s, the city allowed AT&T to install refrigerator-sized boxes of high-speed internet wiring on dozens of corners. But San Francisco Beautiful, a non-profit that advocates for “civic beauty,” worried that the boxes would become targets for graffiti, and have “cumulative negative impacts.” So the group sued the city.
As in Cole Valley’s case, the city was unsympathetic. The utility company had eminent domain to deliver a public service, and San Fransisco Beautiful couldn’t stop AT&T from setting up the network.
But decades later, with 700-plus boxes scattered across San Francisco’s streets, AT&T approached San Francisco Beautiful again. It proposed partnering with the non-profit to commission designs for some of the boxes by local artists.
“Flash forward 20 years and we’re beautifying those boxes, and the neighbors are thrilled,” said Darcy Brown, executive director of SF Beautiful. “This is called evolution.”
The wireless data service stayed, and the city got a little more colorful.
“It’s an example of how things can come full circle to benefit the neighborhoods,” she said. “And it’s an example of how you can work with people as opposed to fighting them; and use money to beautify as opposed to litigate.”