ITHACA, N.Y. –– It seems like the anti-5G coalition of local residents who have vocally opposed the technology for the last year may be getting their way. As of the City of Ithaca’s June 23 City Administration Committee meeting, members seem amenable to restrictive measures being included as part of a planned 5G rollout.

The full agenda, including the preliminary 5G implementation language, can be found here.

In May 2020, the City of Ithaca’s Common Council approved a resolution to enter an agreement with Verizon to install small cell or wireless facilities with 4G and 5G abilities. This is not a new occurrence, agreements like this happen each time there is an upgrade to service such as 3G and 4G LTE. The concerns have really only surfaced over 5G as the method of transmission uses slightly different forms of wavelength communication, prompting backlash from those who say it hasn’t been proven safe.

The fear surrounding 5G also isn’t specific to Ithaca—people across the country have been skeptical about the service.

Their concerns, echoed by Ithacans at the June committee meeting, include 5G’s impacts on human health and the well being of the environment, mostly emanating from the radiation exposure. According to the World Health Organization, there seem to be no adverse long-term effects from exposure to 5G. 

That hasn’t stopped 5G nay-sayers from citing ‘research’ that says otherwise, including unknown sources that say the wireless network has been killing birds and bees as a result of radiation –– a fact that has been disputed by expert organizations such as Audubon

With this concern in mind, many asked during the meeting for an update to the city’s 5G guideline draft that would increase the distance allowed between the towers and residential buildings and schools. 

“It’s currently eight feet and [you should] increase that to 1,600 feet based on the research that has already been done,” said Molly Donovan, the first commenter of the session. The Ithaca Voice has been unable to find any research that uses the 1600 foot figure and a safety yardstick. 

Carmel Rome, another Ithaca resident, echoed this sentiment saying that, “Many researchers have found that children are way more vulnerable to EMF exposure.” She continued, “it is shocking. Ithaca should profoundly increase the distance from where our children play, sleep and learn.” 

Considering Ithaca’s dense population layout, high distance requirements, if adopted, would make it difficult for 5G to be installed in the city. 

Ducson Nguyen, Ithaca’s Second Ward Alderperson, said that in addition to safety, the next biggest concern from residents is regarding the look of transmitters which can be bulky. He’s been a strong advocate of installing 5G locally.

“It’s not universal because I don’t share these concerns myself but it’s two major things, one is safety concerning electromagnetic radiation and the other is aesthetic,” said Nguyen. “It’s not obvious to me which one is more important but they both are pretty prominent.”

The council said they would be taking all 5G concerns into consideration when discussing the 5G design guidelines the city has been drafting for a little over a year. Restrictions will be up for a final vote at a meeting later this month.

Guidelines however could be moot, as City Attorney Ari Lavine, who offers legal advice to the Common Council, chimed in and asked if the council would rather forgo the 5G installation in favor of only permitting the technology if and where there is a gap in coverage. 

“I heard loud and clear from the members of the public that were commenting that… they want to only permit 5G installation where there is a gap in coverage and that may be nowhere in Ithaca as I think some commenters said tonight,” Lavine said.

Lavine also mentioned that even further delaying any big decision on 5G could be a legal battle with Verizon—council received a letter from a Verizon Government Relations staff member arguing that the approach the city is considering to 5G, and the current drafted guidelines, violate federal law. Andrew Campanelli, a Long Island-based lawyer hired by the city, has advised the council “that is not the case but it’s worth understanding that there’s a disagreement between Verizon and Mr. Campanelli…which could result in litigation,” according to Lavine. 

The disagreement between Campanelli and Verizon is over what the limits a municipality has to limit how and where wireless infrastructure is sited. 

“From Verizon’s point of view, the federal government has clear rules on installing infrastructure as needed and Campanelli says that there are stricter guidelines that we are able to enact,” Nguyen said. “To be clear, he said certain things can be strict but you need a relief system. But even that, Verizon claims, is too restrictive.”

Campanelli was hired to draft a report regarding what provisions the city can include to control where companies build 5G infrastructure in Ithaca. He said guidelines, including requiring that 5G facilities are set back several hundred feet from residential buildings, are in fact perfectly under the city’s purview. 

Verizon has argued that if the city takes too long and keeps them from installing equipment they could sue Ithaca for the delay.The Common Council was presented with a master license agreement in April 2020 and was voted on that May, but was not signed. It remains unsigned and will not be carried out until the guideline draft is finalized and approved by the council.

Mikayla Rovenolt

Mikayla Rovenolt interns with the Ithaca Voice and is also a contributing writer for Queers for a Cause, an online based Lgbtq news and advocacy blog. Tips or stories? Contact mikaylarovenolt@gmail.com.