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Fiber Broadband and Small Cells: An Unholy Municipal Alliance

In the rural northwest corner of Connecticut where I live in the gracious foothills to the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, our 27-town Council of Governments (NWCOG), urged on by the well-intentioned local group “Northwest ConneCT,” is encouraging towns to embrace “fiber broadband” in their new plans of conservation and development and build out municipally owned fiber broadband ASAP. Towns can already own fiber networks for non-commercial use, but this new initiative would bump that to commercial use too. And a new bill here, SB 846, would enshrine commercial municipal broadband into Connecticut law.

Such efforts for municipal fiber broadband are happening all across the country, but do towns really understand what’s behind this curtain? Hint: many areas are fighting related proposals in federal courts because of what rides on these coattails, including august groups like Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Working Group, and Sierra Club. And California’s former governor Jerry Brown vetoed a 2017 bill not unlike what SB846 would unleash — small cells transmitting radiofrequency (RF) radiation — a known genotoxin — from every third utility pole very close to homes.

Typically municipal fiber has noble purposes: attract new residents, create/fill jobs, workforce training, better high speed connectivity and cell reception — with fiber the presumed answer to aging populations, decreased school enrollment, youth flight to cities, highway (un)safety, and more. Unfortunately, this focus is on end-points at the expense of what hitchhikes on fiber’s unintended consequences. Many are fighting this nationally, not because of fiber (a true marvel) or even broadband (who doesn’t want more?) but because fiber networks have morphed into highways for small cells that are just like having a cell tower, radiating RF, right outside your door.

As a science writer with two books on technology’s affects to biology, particularly infrastructure, I used to advocate for “fiber-to-the-premises”— meaning fiber optic cable, 100 percent wired to-the-home, withouta mobile wireless component, preferably municipally owned over which various communications providers could “compete” for fixed services like Internet, communications and entertainment. (That should be our national model.) But that train left the station several years ago when fiber was hijacked for “backhaul” by the current feverish small-cell zeitgeist in the name of ubiquitous connectivity for fourth generation (4G/4GLTE smart phones) and eventually 5G Internet of Things (IoT) machine-to-machine technology.

The innocuous-sounding “fiber broadband” is potentially dangerous — financially, environmentally, legally. Fiber may never again be the perfect dedicated system. It’s been kidnapped by wireless convenience’s feckless siren call. A once completely wired fiber-the-premises (FTTP) is now really “fiber-to-the-driveway” with the final connection — the so-called “last mile” — struck by homeowners with various service providers typically via wireless combinations both outdoors and indoors. Such municipal plans invite piggybacking telecoms to create 100 percent mobile connectivity too, meaning small cell nodes – hundreds of thousands needed nationally — affixed to utility poles in public-rights-of-way, transmitting 24/7, without control or informed consent of those nearby. These are highly biologically active exposures.

All living cells are a’swirl with electrical micro current. That’s what blinks out when we die, in tandem with a diminishing chemical cascade. The rise in ambient EMF/RF levels is the single biggest environmental alteration within the last 25 years, speaking the same fundamental energetic language as living cells, leading many scientists today to think artificial EMF/RF degrades the body’s functional electro-chemical balance. Small cells will increase that by orders of magnitude and fiber is their ticket to ride.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) RF exposure standards, over 20 years old, are for acute short-term thermal effects (like a microwave oven cooks food) but today’s exposures are long-term, low-level, chronic, and far below that threshold.

There’s compelling science, at vanishingly low intensities, leading to:

.  The 2011 International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) at the World Health Organization (WHO) classification of RF as a 2B (possible) human carcinogen. Newer research calls for RF reclassification as 2A (probable) carcinogen, or to Group 1 (known) carcinogen.

.  The 2012 BioInitiative Report, edited by Cindy Sage and David O. Carpenter, MD, was updated to include nearly 2000 papers from over 10 countries by 29 international research scientists (10 from the U.S.). Noted were continued rollouts of wireless technologies jeopardizing global health, with recommendations for different standards, lower exposure limits, and a cautious science-based approach.

.  The 2015 International Scientists Appeal to the UN/WHO by 220 peer-reviewed scientists from 41 nations about grave concerns over rising ambient EMF/RF.  Their warnings include all RF-emitting devices: cell phones, infrastructure, wifi, ‘smart’ meter/grid technology, devices like baby monitors, and commercial broadcast. The warning extends to 4 and 5G small cells.

. The 2017 petition by Swedish scientist Lennart Hardell, signed by over 180 scientists and doctors from 36 countries, calling for a EU moratorium on 5G roll-out until human and environmental hazards areinvestigated by non-industry scientists. Signatories noted 5G will substantially increase cumulative RF effects on top of existing 2G, 3G, 4G, wi-fi, and otherexposures. They urged EU to halt 4 and 5G until non-industry scientists show total radiation levels from all sources are safe,especially to children, pregnant women, and the environment.

. The 2017 U.S. National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) release of a 16-year, $28-million study that foundcausalrelationships between cell-phone RF and DNA damage, malignant brain cancers (glioma), and benign nerve tumors (schwannomas) of the heart in male rats. NTP, the largest long-term low-level RF study ever conducted, used 2G-type radiation at non-thermal RF where effects were considered impossible. Newer generation signaling characteristics are even more complex.

. The 2018 Ramazzini Institute study in Italy verified NTP’s findings at even lower non-thermal RF intensities. They also found brain tumors and schwannomas in both male and female rats. Consistent with NTP, Ramazzini showed effects are reproducible. Yet FCC, FDA, and industry ignore the data.

Other non-thermal research shows effects to: DNA, cell membranes, gene expression, neuronal function, the blood brain barrier, melatonin production, sperm damage, learning impairment, and immune system function. Known adverse effects to humans include infertility, neurogenerative changes, numerous cancers, and heart rate variability. For some this is not theoretical. Near towers and in classrooms with wifi, people have experienced headaches, increased noise sensitivity, rashes, nausea, exhaustion, muscle weakness, lower libido, premature bone aging, concentration and memory problems, and hyperactivity. Prenatal exposures have lead to ADD and autism-like effects in test animals.

Numerous effects to wildlife are seen. Birds suffer disorientation near cell towers. European studies found adverse effects in avian breeding, nesting and roosting near towers, and documented nest and site abandonment, plumage deterioration, locomotion problems, plus death from microwave RF in house sparrows, white storks, rock doves, magpies, collared doves, and other species. Under laboratory conditions, U.S. researchers found non-thermal radiation from standard cell phone frequencies were lethal to domestic chicken embryos. Other affected species include bats, amphibians, insects, and domestic animals — even plant/tree flora are susceptible. RF created increased bacterialantibiotic resistance, and fruit flies showed morphological abnormalities and decreased survival.The tiny millimeter waves used in 5G will be particularly devastating to insects and thin-skinned amphibians as they couple maximally with skin tissue.

The above is not chump change. That’s a lot of research to waive aside, and a lot of people know about it. Once fiber is in place, small cells are close behind. We ignore this large body of research – all at current “safety” standards — at our own peril.

There has been enormous industry pressure on the feds and states to remove obstacles for ubiquitous small cell deployment for current and next generation telecommunications, which cannot work without fiber optic cable.

Since 2016, the Koch-funded lobbing group, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has introduced legislation in every state promoting small cells and overriding local jurisdiction. (Twenty+ states initially enacted it but some tried to rescind after citizen protests.) ALEC also inspired federal legislation with over 30 small cell facilitation bills from 2016 through 2019 with heightened restrictions regarding environmental review and historic significance. (See MOBIL NOW Act; DIGIT ACT, and the (pending S.3157)STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act.) The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted rules in January 2019 greatly restricting local/state ability to use the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), conduct environmental assessments, or use the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in small cell zoning/siting review. FCC also severely restricted what municipalities can charge for pole space and application/review fees. (U.S. California Representative Anna Eshoo introduced HR.530: Empowering Local Communities Act to overturn these.)FCC also created shortened tiers for so-called “shot clocks” for small cells which can be deemed granted if not acted upon within as little as 60 days. These are major power grabs of public assets in favor of commercial interests with little compensation. There is also pending legislation that would remove all liability from small cell providers. We get the risks, they get the profit.

Small cells mounted on utility poles along roadways, using radiofrequency (RF) radiation, is often an essential item for municipally owned fiber broadband, hoping for wireless service provider licensing agreements for “last mile” attachments to homes and businesses. Towns envision only functional upsides including increased municipal revenue and lower consumer cost. But there are downsides, not least the inherent pitting of citizens against their own local governments when they don’t want small cells outside their front doors.

Fiber networks-to-the-premises without any wireless components are the safest, fastest, most secure and resilient communications systems – if they could stay dedicated. Instead, fiber has become the highway for 4G and eventually 5G wireless networks with small cells transmitting RF within mere feet of people’s homes. Unlike individual devices and personal home wifi which can be turned off, industrial-scale infrastructure exposures are involuntary, 24/7.

Fiber optic cable by itself is a marvel — literally the only way to create more electromagnetic spectrum, which in its natural state is extremely limited as there are only so many “bands” in the total “width” of frequencies (measured in wavelengths) between the earth’s natural fields and cosmic energy. Fiber, encased in thick conduit, uses ultra-thin bundled glass light strands less than the size of a human hair to carry multi-frequency electromagnetic signals for myriad broadband communication needs. The number and kind of strands determine signal carrying capacity. Nothing with fiber goes through the air. Unlike wireless, fiber has no ambient RF exposures. Fiber is blindingly faster than over-the-air wireless can ever be. And because fiber is often buried under streets and/or mounted lower on utility poles than power distribution lines, it withstands weather and other catastrophes better than wireless.

Wireless services however are far from totally wireless. A cell phone call gets from a car to another cell phone or a landline in a distant state via multiple complex switching stations on wired networks and coordinating “handshakes” between towers. Most of this heavy lifting is still done by our legacy copper lines continuing to serve us well despite endless disparagement as obsolete. Advanced copper upgrades are even better. But for speed and capacity, nothing beats fiber, which makes it a most tempting target for next-gen wireless’s central nervous system.

Fiber networks are expensive to build. Smaller industry segments may be happy to piggyback onto municipal fiber or partner with municipalities who pick up part of their upfront costs, but big players like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint/T-Mobil et al. prefer to control the whole enchilada with their own fiber and cells, partly because they function on different systems, and already own miles of interstate fiber. A fully built 5G network will also need an enormous amount of capacity – likely beyond what a municipal network can provide. Flush with recent tax breaks, new federal laws, and FCC rulings removing local obstacles for small cell deployment, many communities are hard hit by a small cell feeding frenzy. But just because we build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. Towns will likely end up with multiple redundant networks, leaving municipally owned fiber as stranded assets, absent profitable users, or with smaller providers we’ve underwritten who cannot compete in price.

A preview of this is already unfolding in northwest Connecticut. Optimum – a local cable service provider partnering with U.S. Sprint, is stringing coaxial cable on utility poles and placing mini-small cells/boosters directly on the cable (not the poles) for Sprint wireless, including in remote sections with only a handful of residents. This is the beginning of a massive new RF-transmitting infrastructure that does not now exist. Most cell service here is via widely spaced towers in isolated areas – a byproduct of strict local zoning laws and decades-long pressure on Connecticut’s state centralized tower siting authority to be careful with infrastructure. Yes there are dead spots but most live reasonably with it in exchange for the sophisticated rural tradeoff. RF measurements taken directly under Optimum’s boxes are within FCC guidelines but adverse effects have been found this low.

People assume the more aesthetically pleasing small cells will replace tall towers (macro sites) but small cells (micro sites) work off of macro sites so more of those will be needed too. Small cells function at lower power output than a macro site but proximity is everything. A closer node can deliver a stronger direct exposure than tall towers in remote areas. No one should mistake small cells as safer than towers. The opposite is true.

Cell service and accompanying infrastructure have undergone multiple iterations as technology and demand changed. First generation (1G) voice-only analog calls used simpler signaling characteristics with longer wavelengths so towers could be placed every 10 miles apart. Each successive generation from 2G, 3G and now 4G, have used increasingly complex signals, requiring far more bandwidth as technology and demand ‘smartened’ to include photos, texting, apps, video conferencing, mobile TV, gaming, uploads, downloads, and more. In fact smart phones these days are mostly Internet portals hardly used for voice anymore. Frequencies used now span a huge swath of the RF bands and with signals digitized, towers are needed every 3 miles apart. Today’s 4G (smart phones) functioning with even shorter wavelengths can still function from cell towers but industry claims demand is forcing them to densify to small cell infrastructure mounted on utility poles. Others say this is just a grab of public assets for private gain.

And then there’s 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution), acting as a bridge to the fifth generation (5G) that functions in the upper microwave/millimeter wavebands. (The U.S. military’s “Active Denial” project has weaponized the upper frequency mm-wave range at 95 GHz for evasive action and crowd control.) 5G is nothing like we have ever seen — rightly giving the willies even to lifelong industry researchers. While 4G signals bear little resemblance to 5G, incorporated into 4G’s newest antenna designs are hundreds of tiny 5G antennas that can be remotely activated at will. Thus 4G small cells today are Trojan horses for 5G and fiber is their backbone.  While 5G prototypes exist in a few cities, it is so complex that it may never be fully operational, despite media and financial-sector hype. 5G will support some voice and Internet but its primary raison d’être is the Internet of Things – machine-to-machine communication, like driverless cars, refrigerators calling cell phones when milk runs low, smart cities/homes, and huge amounts of data to track/store every information-carrying electron, plus a zillion things not yet imagined. 5G is quite simply the most labyrinthine wireless network ever gleefully created by electrical engineers — a radiating Hieronymus Bosch 24/7 phantasmagoria without one care for biological stewardship. 5G uses beam-steering technology that follows the device, not the user, and signaling characteristics like phased array with time-varying overlapping wave banks that hit living cells constantly from multiple angles, and at speeds so fast there is no possible biological recovery time between exposures. There’s already talk of 6G and telecoms using even higher laser frequencies that other species can actually see. The higher the frequency, the more inherent power it packs, capable of physiological effects. This is environmental madness.

4G LTE/5G need a lot of bandwidth backhaul to deliver so much more than simple voice, and fiber is the only thing that provides it. Thus, to promote fiber just promotes the skeleton upon which current and next-gen small cells are fleshed out. Without fiber, 5G cannot exist and 4G would have to swim in its own lane. With warp-speed small cell deployment at FCC, and scores of industry-friendly federal bills removing or severely limiting local control, there’s no way to stop them. Once fiber’s in place, all bets are off.

There’s significant national pushback and numerous small cell suits against FCC consolidated into the Ninth Circuit court in California. Recently, Montgomery County, Maryland, approved appointment of a special counsel tofight small cell infrastructure after massive citizen reaction. SeveralCalifornia and Oregon towns have banned small cells outright with more in the offing. Maryland strongly came out against RF by removing wifi from schools in favor of safer wired Ethernet connections, and last year turned down enabling small cell legislation, but the bills are back in 2019.  New Hampshire is convening an expert panel on 5G and general RF safety before moving forward – something the federal government should do. Nineteen bills in Massachusetts now address man-made radiation issues. And Montana just passed a Joint House and Senate Resolution urging the U.S. Congress to amend Section 704 of the Telecommunications Act to allow local governments to include RF in zoning considerations, something that municipalities/states cannot now do if facilities comply with the 20-year old FCC emissions standards. There really is no other federal agency acting like FCC with dire preemptory rules that affect every citizen right where they live. FCC has gone utterly rogue from its duty to protect citizens in order to promote technology.

FCC’s unctuous 2019 small cell streamlining rule was the first sweeping administrative override of the sacrosanct National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) — federal laws that FCC is mandated to follow before issuing any ruling that could materially impact the environment.  FCC decided instead to relax the laws — far beyond their statutory authority. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is suing FCC. The Sierra Club and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have joined in objections to this FCC overreach, as well as against 4- and -5G small cells.

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s new governor, Ned Lamont — a wealthy former cable and telecom entrepreneur — wants to make this the first 5G state. By contrast, in 2017 California’s then- governor Jerry Brown vetoed a state small cell streamlining bill after 360 municipalities (out of a total 482), plus every major environmental organization and groups like AARP and the League of California Cities came out loudly against it. Last December, Senator Richard Blumenthal held a press conference on 5G safety where I was an invited speaker (along with Communications Workers of America representatives rightly concerned, as pole climbers, about small cells) – see http://www.ctn.state.ct.us/ctnplayer.asp?odID=15794&fbclid=IwAR2MoOv8RN8BmqbmFwjbzDPVO2PddCnwg-h0BiuudyStgvfO2sh_seBmp_E The conference highlighted the senator’s letter to FCC asking for research that verifies 5G “safety.” FCC responded by referring Blumenthal to FDA which typically blows off RF concerns. In FCC’s stock buck-passing to other agencies, they highlighted once again a central problem with ambient infrastructure exposures. Such exposures are under the federal purview of the EPA. (FDA controls for devices like cell phones, not infrastructure.) But EPA has long been defunded for nonionizing radiation exposure review. There is literally no expert agency for FCC to tap into for anything other than devices. Yet FCC controls the whole sheebang regarding exposures – except of course when called upon to justify their actions. Then they deflect to the wrong agency as the last word. The solution is to refund the EPA for low level nonionizing spectrum research and return their statutory authority to set environmental energy exposure standards.

There are considerable benefits with fiber but the only way to protect them from appropriation by commercial small cells is federal legislation that completely separates wired and wireless systems. Under current laws, that could potentially run afoul of interstate commerce and 30+ years of FCC “bundling” allowing cable and wireless carriers to blur services once kept separate. There is, however, a new lawsuit that circles around some of these issues brought by the irreverently called “Irregulators,” (http://irregulators.org/who-we-are/ ) a group of senior telecom experts, analysts, forensic auditors, attorneys, former FCC senior staffers, regulators and others  to fix central problems at FCC — see http://irregulators.org/irregulatorsvsfcc/  Also see http://newnetworks.com/fixingtelecomdocs/.  Others are trying to use anti-commandeering laws to stop some of this federal intrusion. All of this needs to be sorted out.

Towns really should not go down this fiber/small cell path with monumental safety questions unanswered, little — if any — antenna siting control, unseen financial/liability risks, and only speculative gains. Individual towns need to think carefully before getting into commercial communications – there might not be as much “home rule” as they think. And towns that naively write a desire for fiber broadband into plans of conservation and development should understand the entirety of that wish, including unintended consequences like opening themselves to liability from citizen suits on any number of grounds.

Underserved rural areas may in the end be best served perfecting the current patchwork of high-speed communications via cable, satellite service, and private wifi solutions than constructing whole new fiber/small cell networks that will make municipalities  perennially susceptible to semi-appropriation by Big Wireless. Or be conversely stuck with stranded assets when those same players prefer their own redundant infrastructure. This is not to mention Elon Musk gaining FCC approval in 2018 for 7,000 low-earth orbiting 4 and 5G satellites, now seeking approval for 1 million earth stations in the U.S. for an operational network in 2020, or other global satt systems with coverage in remote areas, although these too bring potential environmentally damaging exposures, especially broadly to wildlife.

A cheaper wired high-speed solution would be laws requiring FCC to enforce any cable licensee to fully complete their rural networks to every single home – or face license revocation. Cell phone dead-spots can be managed in ways other than going to thousands of small cells. Also worthy of protection are our legacy copper wires and a return to stationary, wired phone and Internet access. Not everything has to be mobile. At one time copper systems were considered among the true wonders of the world and still remain our most essential backhaul infrastructure for wireless. Copper networks also withstand devastating wildfires (as California discovered last year) better than fiber which melts more readily than metal.

These are legitimate concerns as we barrel toward ubiquitous mobile service and ever-faster Internet connecting every imaginable thing via a known genotoxin that’s not too present in many rural natural energetic environments where people go specifically to escape such exposures. Fiber/small cells now endanger the last vestiges of these places, such as they are. The question is — at what price to the biome for so much Faustian human convenience?

B. Blake Levitt is a science journalist, former New York Times contributor, author of “Electromagnetic Fields, A Consumer’s Guide…” and editor of “Cell Towers, Wireless Convenience? Or Environmental Hazard?” Her focus is on how technology affects biology.