5G Cell Towers: How the Game is Played

Photograph Source: Tomás Freres – CC BY-SA 4.0

Do you have a “5G” (Fifth Generation) phone?  It’s being ceaselessly promoted by the telecom companies as the next new standard.

5G is replacing the “macrocells” used in 4G networks because it is relatively smaller in size and cheaper to deploy.  5G wireless cellular signals are transmitted through small cell towers or base station, miniature access points that transmit low radio frequencies.

Look up and you are likely to see small cells perched on top of buildings as well as atop street lights and stop signals.  In 2020, 1,945 5G small cells had been deployed, mostly in dense, urban settings. But by 2027, 1.56 million private 5G small cells are projected to be deployed.

More than 25 state legislatures have enacted legislating the deployment of small cells, including Michigan, Missouri, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia; 16 states introduced mobile 5G and small cell-related legislation in the 2020.

However, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed SB 556 on October 4th, a bill to promote the deployment of small cells.  Newsom wrote:

This bill would restrict the ability of local governments and publicly-owned electric utilities to regulate the placement of small cell wireless facilities on public infrastructure and limit the compensation that may be collected for use of these public assets.

There’s a secret story behind the small cell 5G push and that’s ALEC – American Legislative Exchange Council.  It proposed the model legislation that was not only promoted in California and other states, but legislation put forward by Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr in 2018 — “Carr’s 5G Order” – that launched the new-generation of wireless communications.

At the time, then FCC commissioner — and now chair — Jessica Rosenworcel warned: “So it comes down to this: three unelected officials on this dais are telling state and local leaders all across the country what they can and cannot do in their own backyards. This is extraordinary federal overreach.”


Over the last two decade, the mobile phone market was transformed, moving steadily from the earliest “1st generation” to today’s “5th generation.”  A short review of the process illuminates this transformation:

1G – Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) launched 1G in 1979 but it was not until March 1983 that Ameritech introduced the Motorola DynaTAC mobile phone – popularly known as “The Brick” – to the U.S.

2G – introduced in Finland in 1991, it included SMS text messages, digitally encrypted calls, improved sound quality, reducing static and crackling noises, and significantly increased download speeds.

3G – launched by NTT in May 2001, it enhanced location-based services, watch mobile TV, participate in video conferencing and watch videos on demand; in addition, users could access data from anywhere, which allowed international roaming services to begin; with speeds up to 2 Mbps, it enabled improved internet surfing and music streaming on mobile phones. It saw the introduction of Blackberry and Apple i-Phone.

4G – introduced in Norway in 2009, it provided high-quality video streaming/chat, fast mobile web access, HD videos, and online gaming; it offered speeds up to 12Mbps, five times faster than the previous generation. The best-selling cellphones included the iPhone 6 at 22.4 million units and the Samsung Galaxy S4 at 80 million units worldwide.

5G – developed in South Korea in 2008, Samsung announced that it had created a 5G network in 2013; in 2019, Verizon introduced 5G in the U.S.; it cut latency — the delay between the sending and receiving information — from 4G’s 200 milliseconds to1 millisecond (1ms); and it expanded bandwidth from 30 GHz and 300 GHz.

Today, 5G is slowly superseding 4G.

Serious concerns have been raised about the health impacts of smart phone technology.  Joel Moskowitz, a PhD researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and director of Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health, observes,

“People are addicted to their smartphones. We use them for everything now, and, in many ways, we need them to function in our daily lives.” He warns, “I think the idea that they’re potentially harming our health is too much for some people.”

The FCC rejects these concerns, insisting “currently no scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.”  However, two lawsuits were recently brought against the FCC over wireless safety rules.

Now, with Democratic control of the agencies, this concern will likely get a more careful assessment.  On October 26th, Jessica Rosenworcel, who had served as the FCC’s acting chair, was appointed the agency’s permanent chair; she was also nominated for a new term, which would be her third. In addition, Pres. Biden nominated Gigi Sohn, a former FCC staffer and prominent advocate for an open and affordable internet, to fill the agency’s remaining open spot.


In a January 2020 piece, Richard Gale and Gary Null noted, “… it is no surprise to find ALEC’s fingerprints all over the aggressive push to roll out 5G technology across the nation.”

ALEC is an influential conservative organization whose lobbyists draft model rightwing and free-market legislation that is promoted by sympathetic state legislators across the country.  Founded in 1973 by arch-reactionary Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, it promotes itself as a “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators that favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.”  It claims to “advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty ….”



Whether its claims are making Jefferson spin in his grave is an open question; nevertheless, ALEC’s campaign is clear.  It seeks to destroy unions, defeat climate regulation and further shift wealth to the 1 percent.

ALEC is, formally, a non-profit group that drafts model legislation.  It has an estimated membership exceeding 2,000 state legislators from both political parties, but most are conservative Republicans.  It regularly invites members to all-expense paid private gatherings with corporate executives and lobbyists where they devise model legislation to fulfill their political agenda.  These legislators, in turn, return to their home states and promote the legislation at state houses throughout the country.  Many of their initiatives have been enacted.

At its December 2016 Communications and Information Technology Task Force at the States and Nation Policy Summit, ALEC made the following proposal to advance 5G technology and small cell towers:

BE IT RESOLVED, that extending current pole attachment rules to poles owned by governments, electrical cooperatives and railroads would ensure that broadband providers may gain access to public rights of way at just and reasonable rates; and

BE IT RESOLVED, that ALEC urges lawmakers to utilize public-private partnerships and government-owned networks only to the extent that citizens’ demand for broadband is not met by the private market; and

BE IT RESOLVED, that, in assessing whether citizens’ broadband demand is being effectively met by the private market, lawmakers may consider, in addition to service characteristics and availability, pricing and the extent of competition, but should bear the burden of defining a market failure through rigorous economic analysis of robust data, and not rely solely on concentration metrics to assert a lack of competition; …

Gale and Null identify a number of ALEC 5G “model” policy recommendations, including:

+ Permit the telecommunications industry with free access to “public rights-of-ways” to assure full small cell antennae rollout.

+ Foster fast-tracking of 5G deployment to reduce time to conduct thorough reviews of the benefits and risks to local communities.

+ Create barriers for local governments to foster public broadband access.

Telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick drew special attention to FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, arguing that his promotion of 5G “model legislation” that was “most likely created by ALEC.”   Speaking before Indiana’s Statehouse in 2018, Carr promised that “5G will create jobs, improve education and promote safety. But to upgrade our networks, we must upgrade our regulations.”  He added:

Policymakers can’t claim success if 5G is only deployed in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Those ‘must serve’ cities will get next- gen mobile broadband almost regardless of what we do. Success means every community getting a fair shot at 5G.

He argued, “To achieve that success, we need to update our rules to match this revolutionary new technology.”

In an interview with The American Spectator, Carr fleshed out his vision for 5G:

I want to see 5G deployed as ubiquitously as possible and that’s part of why it was so important we took that effort to streamline regulatory red tape. Thirty percent of the total cost of deploying these small cells had been eaten up by this federal regulatory review, so by cutting that cost, which we did last month, that flips the business case for thousands of communities.

Fully articulating the ALEC legislative agenda, Carr conclude, “So communities that wouldn’t have been profitable for a carrier to deploy 5G to now becomes economical.

Carr argued that his 5G plan would cut roughly $2 billion in administrative fees and stimulate additional investments. However, the National Association of Counties (NACo) warned in 2018 that the FCC legislation “would significantly limit their ability to properly regulate wireless telecommunications infrastructure deployment. By narrowing the window for evaluating 5G deployment applications, the FCC would effectively prevent local governments from overseeing public health, safety and welfare during the construction, modification or installation of broadcasting facilities.”  Thus anticipating Gov. Newson’s veto of SB 556.

Carr also embraced ALEC’s support to reverse the internet from a Title II to a Title I service. Under the 1934 Telecommunications Act, Title II services are designated as basic or “common carrier” services and are subject to more regulation; Title I involves what is designated as an enhanced “information services” and subject to fewer regulations.

Pres. Trump’s FCC chair Ajit Pai’s issued a directive in 2017 to reverse Pres. Obama’s reinstatement of Title II of the Communications Act to internet services.  ALEC denounced Obama actions as “a heavy-handed regulatory mistake … and would have allowed the FCC as well as state and local governments to impose onerous taxes and fees on Internet bills.”

Keep the Internet Safe From Growth-Quashing Government Regulations in Title II

In the Spectator interview, Carr uses words that have the same shrill ring of the ALEC announcement:

When the commission adopted the unprecedented decision in 2015 during the Obama-era FCC to impose this heavy-handed Title II regime those decisions have consequences and we saw that investment by broadband providers was declining during the period in which that Title II regime was imposed.

So, when you look at the small cells towers, remember the politics of technology is played out in your smartphone.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.