Such a protest in Dewey Beach, Del. — summer playground for thousands of Washingtonians — has drawn national attention. The resort has emerged as a champion of the movement after persuading Verizon to promise to remove three of five towers that marred the scenery along the dunes.
“It’s very positive to see a success story in Dewey Beach,” said Elizabeth Ellis, a lawyer representing clients opposed to 5G towers in the seaside town of Hull, Mass. “Maybe if we all band together, these local municipalities that are experiencing this may have a better chance.”
The battle is playing out in the suburbs, too. The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday will study a zoning change that would make it possible to install 5G antennas within 30 feet of homes in residential areas, as long as they’re on existing poles or replacement poles in the same locations. Neighborhood resistance has long delayed the move, partly because of purported health fears but also because of aesthetic concerns.
Citizens are airing these grievances in hundreds of locales as they see contractors rushing to install a 5G wireless data network as quickly as possible at a cost estimated at $750 billion, according to industry analysts.
“This is a phenomenon racing across the United States,” said Andrew J. Campanelli, a New York attorney who advises local governments on telecom affairs. “I get 50 or 60 calls a day from people who say, basically: ‘I woke up and found a wireless facility built in front of my house.’ ”
The challenge facing the critics is that they are battling federal law and the financial and legal might of major companies such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
The Federal Communications Commission has effectively ruled that state and local governments cannot “materially prohibit” carriers from offering 5G service. It wants to encourage the country to take advantage of the new technology as quickly as possible.
Local governments can use their zoning powers in many cases to block unsightly 5G installations. But they often are reluctant to do so, for fear of being sued by the telecom companies or their contractors.
5G, which stands for “fifth generation,” promises to raise Internet speeds by as much as a hundredfold over fourth-generation technology.
5G needs many more cellular antennas, called “small cells,” than 4G. That’s because it uses higher-frequency radio waves, which carry much more data but have shorter ranges.
Many small cells are about the size of a large suitcase or a narrow refrigerator. They can often be attached to existing poles. But providers also erect new poles to ensure adequate wireless coverage. Sometimes they put up taller, wider replacement poles to handle the new equipment’s weight.
Many critics — though not all — are perfectly content to have the 5G equipment installed. They just want the carriers and their contractors to do more to preserve landscapes and stay away from homes.
That was the approach in Dewey Beach. Dan Dionisio, who formed the group Save Dewey Beach, did not object to 5G’s arrival but asked Verizon to find some place for its new poles other than spots where people crossed the dunes to reach the beach.
“The issue isn’t about not wanting better cell service or not having it along our national coastlines. It is an issue of where these poles are being located and what amount of thought is going into those decisions,” Dionisio said.
His group planned a protest rally for July 5, only to see Verizon announce 10 days earlier that it would remove three of the five offending poles and put the equipment away from the beach. It was clear from the timing that Verizon was worried about the public relations impact.
“Legally, they’re allowed to do it [keep the poles], but social responsibility has to play into this somehow,” Dewey Beach Town Commissioner Paul Bauer said. “I told them: ‘Guys, is this the look you want?’ ”
The rally went ahead anyway, drawing more than 100 people. Dionisio and others celebrated the victory but said it wasn’t final until Verizon set a fixed date for relocating the towers.
Asked to comment about local objections to intrusive Verizon 5G poles in Dewey Beach and Pensacola, Fla., a company spokesman did not directly address the aesthetics concerns but talked instead about communities’ desire for wireless service.
“Our engineers study existing data traffic and anticipated needs to determine placement of small cells,” said Kevin H. King, director of corporate communications.
He also cited a survey indicating that nearly 8 in 10 American home buyers believe 5G service increases a home’s value.
CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, said providers participate in a “comprehensive” regulatory and permitting process “to ensure compliance with all relevant safety, environmental, historic, or aesthetic requirements.”
Critics see it differently. They accuse contractors working with the telecom companies of erecting unsightly poles or adding other unwelcome equipment with little or no consultation.
“Their motivation is to build as many of these things as they can, as quickly as they can,” said John Herron, an airline pilot who has helped lead anti-5G efforts in Pensacola. “They put a pole right in front of a woman’s front door, and another right next to a man’s house. In both cases, they had absolutely no notice.”
Julie Levine of Topanga, Calif., founder of 5G Free California, said new poles “are ugly and are placed too close to homes. . . . It looks awful on the mountaintops.”
Levine and others also warn against what they see as health risks from radiation generated by the 5G antennas. But several authorities — including the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Cancer Institute — have said no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.
An academic paper in March looked at 107 experimental studies in a “state of the science review” of research into possible health dangers of 5G technology.
“This review showed no confirmed evidence that [radiation fields] such as those used by the 5G network are hazardous to human health,” the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology said.
But it also called for further research: “Future epidemiological studies should continue to monitor long-term health effects in the population related to wireless telecommunications.”
No research is needed to establish that new 5G poles can have adverse effects on the scenery of a town or view from a house.
This controversy is not going away, not even in Dewey Beach. On Thursday, the town was informed that AT&T wants to put up three towers along the dunes in places almost identical to the ones that Verizon has promised to vacate.
Dionisio said: “We think they are going to be more open to working with the town after what happened with Verizon, but the town was shocked to get the map with those beach locations.”