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Opinion: Allowing Unfettered Access to Build Cell Towers in the Name of 5G Is Bad Policy

5G photo.

The Montgomery County Council is poised to pass legislation that will flood our neighborhoods with 5G cell towers. While the entire process has completely ignored the will and needs of Montgomery County residents, it is also antithetical to the county’s declared climate emergency and goal of zero carbon emissions by 2035.

This bill puts the wireless industry in the driver’s seat, disregarding the voice of county residents, leading to a never-ending cycle of new “smart” devices and constant consumption, ultimately drastically increasing our energy use with no end in sight.

This would be concerning anywhere, but sitting just outside Washington, D.C., our county boasts some of the most politically engaged people in the country, especially when it comes to climate justice. Yet the county council is trying to ram through policy that will counter our broader global efforts, paving the way for unfettered and unrestrained wireless network growth worldwide in the process.

This new zoning amendment — ZTA 19-07 — will greenlight more than 30,000 sites as eligible for “small” cell towers in residential neighborhoods across Montgomery County.

As residents, we will not receive any notice, nor be afforded a public hearing on the matter, so long as we already had a streetlight or utility pole at least 30 feet from our home.

By ramming through this legislation with no oversight or accountability, the government is essentially turning its nose up at any sort of environmental review or carbon audit — despite our county’s commitment to climate justice. We must demand the county council consider the impact on climate — including conducting an evidence-based audit — and develop a plan that puts health and environmental equity ahead of big industry demands.

It is an inconvenient truth that the wireless revolution is fueling our planet’s skyrocketing electricity use, with the phenomenal growth in internet traffic increasing energy demands.

Data confirms that unrestrained 5G and the billions of new devices of the internet of things could exponentially increase our energy consumption, accelerating climate change. Green America’s 2020 Report found that while the telecommunications industry has made strides in reducing fossil fuel use, there is much more work to be done.

A projected 70.2 million “small cell” towers are to be installed worldwide by 2025, 500 billion internet connected devices by 2030 and 60% growth a year in production of wireless peripherals like speakers, appliances and wearables. While our electronics have become more energy efficient, the reality is that these gains simply cannot keep up with the massive proliferation of “smart” things.

How do we know this? Politico covered the 2020 Report by the High Council for Climate — an independent body tasked with issuing advice to the French government on policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which found that “the carbon impact of 5G deployment could amount to between 2.7 and 6.7 million tons of CO2-equivalent in 2030. That’s a significant increase compared to the tech sector’s environmental impact (about 15 million tons of CO2-equivalent in 2020).”

In addition, the Shift Project Report which has documented the rapidly increasing carbon footprint of communications technologies, including the energy for the production and use of equipment (servers, networks and terminals) recommends “digital sobriety” concluding that “the current trend for digital overconsumption in the world is not sustainable.”

This is not a secret.

Telecom has been issuing reports for years trying to figure out how they will pay for the increased energy bill. In 2013, anticipating the technology explosion, the National Mining Association detailed the escalating energy consumption needed to supply data centers, wireless networks, end-use devices and manufacturing facilities.

5G is an energy hog. Their base stations can consume up to twice as much (or more) power compared to 4G. In fact, the GSMA, which represents 750 mobile operators worldwide, put out a report  with a “call to action” on the need to create energy inefficient infrastructure to keep up with the up-to-1,000-times-more increase in data traffic and the massive infrastructure to cope with it.

More so, the 2020 Environmentally Sustainable 5G Deployment Report found that as 5G replaces older networks, energy consumption is expected to increase 61 times between 2020 to 2030 due to the new elements used in 5G networks paired with the massive proliferation of antennas.

Montgomery County should create policy based on data-driven analysis and hold companies accountable to these best practices for energy efficiency. Instead, we’re seeing councilmembers buckle to the demands of big industry behemoths and ignoring the evidence all together.

In addition to greenhouse gases, the county must consider the environmental footprints to water and land. 5G networks will harm tree canopies, a key resource for the renewable technology needed to combat climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas emitted by our cars and power plants — and cool neighborhoods, reducing energy needs.

In several jurisdictions, such as Washington, D.C., small cells cannot be located within 15 feet of a tree and trees can’t be pruned for the benefit of small cell infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the Montgomery County ZTA 19-07 fails to protect our tree canopy. Most poles cannot safely hold the “small” cell wireless antennas and heavy equipment boxes. Thus, most streetlights and many utility poles will be replaced with wider, taller, stronger poles, potentially disturbing the root system of nearby trees. Our street trees will be trimmed to make way for these cell towers.

Just as trees absorb CO2, they also act “as a sink” for cell tower radiation, absorbing and blocking the signals. Field studies show that over time, trees can be damaged. 5G networks will use wireless frequencies currently in use, as well as higher frequencies which can be blocked by trees. This why the D.C. Sierra Club and numerous tree protection groups testified against aggressive tree pruning in the D.C. Council roundtable on small cell infrastructure.

Yet the Montgomery County zoning text amendment has no setbacks in place for the trees.

Who will be trimming the trees? What entity will be monitoring and providing oversight? Where is the data on the number of trees that will be impacted by these new zoning rules? Understanding the answers to these questions is critical for lawmakers to answer if they are committed to achieving carbon neutrality.

The 5G promise is a house of cards.

While companies argue that 5G and new AI technologies can provide state-of-the-art tools to help combat climate change, there is nothing inherent in these new technologies that ensure they will be used in the best interest of our environment. AI could just as easily be used to kill jobs and simply help companies make oil extraction cheaper or extend the lifetime of coal plants.

Industry is experimenting with a new market of “smart” things such as wireless diapers and new networks connect cows with 5G or fit them with virtual reality to calm them down and promote milk production. Companies are bound to their stockholders, not the public good. Without accountability and sound climate policies, digital technology could actually help increase emissions.

Finally, all our devices will need to be swapped out with new 5G devices, contributing to our world’s ever growing e-waste emergency.

The Global E-Waste Monitor report projects nearly 75 million metric tons of e-waste worldwide each year by 2030. Yet less than 10 million metric tons was recycled in 2019. Consumers upgrade from one phone to the next rarely thinking about the environmental degradation and “modern slavery” endemic to the supply chain of our shiny new devices.

Allowing companies unfettered access to build cell towers in neighborhoods in the name of 5G is bad policy.

Before rushing headfirst to 5G, we need to consider the climate, supply chain and environmental impacts. To promote policies that ignore very clear data is arrogant.

All communities being marketed 5G, including Montgomery County, need to first create a master plan, conduct a carbon audit and ensure a full environmental review of the impact of these new wireless networks.

We need strong, evidence-based climate policies that ensure technology is used to combat climate change and not make it worse.


The writers are Montgomery County residents.


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Opinion: Allowing Unfettered Access to Build Cell Towers in the Name of 5G Is Bad Policy