ITHACA, N.Y.—At last week’s Common Council meeting, the City of Ithaca finally came to a decision on the future of 5G coverage locally, which has roused controversy about health impacts of the new technology despite scientific evidence to the contrary. 

After a lengthy discussion at Common Council, which followed an even lengthier legislative process determining in what capacity 5G would be allowed, the decision was made 7-2 supporting the finding that the installation of 5G towers would not have a significant environmental impact. Council also deliberated over, and approved, design guidelines for the small cell infrastructure, which dictate areas towers can be built, how close to certain buildings and entities they can be, at what distance they will have to notify residents, etc.

Essentially, while this vote may seem rather procedural, it actually signifies the official beginning of 5G’s potential presence in Ithaca: in May 2020, the City of Ithaca approved a resolution to allow 5G provided by Verizon, but that included a caveat that the actual Master Licensing Agreement wouldn’t be executed until after the design guidelines were approved. The discussion at October’s meeting begins here, and it’s a long one.

A note: Mayor Svante Myrick abstained from voting and recused himself from the discussion, as he has a family member that works for Verizon, so the deliberations were led by Alderperson Deb Mohlenoff. 

Before the vote, though, Alderpersons George McGonigal and Cynthia Brock both led separate efforts to increase the setbacks that were in place. First, Brock said that there should be a setback of 500 feet (up from 250 feet) from residences, schools and daycares. Brock admitted this would exclude much of downtown, but that the West End would present opportunities for 5G tower construction because it is less dense, and that towers built there could still serve the city. However, this motion failed by a vote of 6-3.

Directly after, McGonigal said that while he appreciates the decision of the last vote, he wanted to make the setback from schools and daycares to be 500 feet, instead of including residences in the setback rules, thinking this may be more palatable to the rest of the council and would still implement more space between the towers and places where kids spend a lot of time. Brock then argued that even making this allowance, but not making the same rules for residences, is logically unsound.

“Functionally, if that is your value system, you should be supporting 500 feet setbacks from residences,” Brock said to the rest of council, acknowledging that McGonigal had indeed supported the residence setback. Regardless, that amendment failed. 

One amendment that was approved came from Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, one of the strongest 5G proponents on council. He argued that dropped calls are an antiquated way to measure cell phone coverage effectiveness, as opposed to using data speeds as a metric. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a dropped call in the city,” Nguyen said. “It’s anachronistic and it’s not the source of most people’s frustrations with cell coverage.”

Thus, Nguyen introduced additional language that concerned data usage speeds, and if they dip below a level of 10 Mbps than an application could be considered for a 5G small cell infrastructure installation.

There was also language regarding questionable health concerns removed from the guidelines, leaving just the FCC’s words instead of, as Alderperson Seph Murtagh called it, “editorializing.”

“I think that’s a profoundly debatable statement,” Murtagh said regarding a passage that said 5G’s impacts on human health “vary widely and there are few reliable sources of information.” He asked to strike that whole passage, opting for the more neutral language of the FCC’s regulations on 5G infrastructure. The council agreed unanimously. 

Brock also asked to strike language that said 5G was necessary in Ithaca “to be competitive in the education market and to attract start-up technological business.” That passage was struck with unanimous consent.

Eventually, the legislation did pass 7-2, with Brock and Nguyen opposing. Nguyen clarified that he voted against the measure because he still felt it was too restrictive toward 5G technology (though some internet problems were also afoot during the meeting). 

Of course, whether or not the city will actually get 5G coverage is now in question. When the law was being formulated, setbacks for 5G towers were increased at the behest of city staff to 250 feet across the board, which necessitated some adjustments in the final draft on Wednesday. In response at the time, Verizon contacted city officials pushing back against the setbacks, arguing they were too stringent and that if they were enacted, Verizon would pursue some sort of legal action agains the city for the restrictions. A message left for Verizon’s Director of Government Affairs for Connecticut and New York, David Lamendola, requesting comment on any potential litigation has not yet been returned. 

That would be welcome news to a relatively small but very vocal contingent of local residents who have emerged as constant critics of the city’s 5G plans. Several of them addressed the council on Wednesday, still resolutely arguing that the city needed to increase setbacks around residences, schools and childcare facilities to protect children from 5G waves (many scientists have weighed in that 5G does not actually pose an outsized danger, and the FCC states as much as well, but apprehension abounds still). While some were local, others had clearly been pulled into the fight from across the country either by other area residents or just from the headlines generated already by the plans. 

Dr. Cindy Russell, a professor at Stanford University who has been outspoken nationally regarding her 5G suspicion, said that the radiation’s impacts have not been studied thoroughly enough, reiterating many of the health fears that opponents have spent months positing during public comments. 

“It is one thing to drive by a tower, but another to spend, sometimes, 24 hours a day that close to a tower,” said Lisa Bertuzzi, another opponent, speaking in favor of larger setbacks for the towers, specifically 1,500 feet from schools and daycares. Adam Monzella also pointed out that health concerns don’t seem to be under consideration, and that he believes electromagnetic fields have negatively impacted the health of he and certain friends. 

More speakers echoed these sentiments, wondering why Common Council would approve such a measure when public comment has routinely been overrun with vocal opposition and invoking “government’s duty to protect” while demonizing “trillion dollar international corporations” like Verizon. 

McGonigal said the messages from the public were very similar to last time. He said the feedback signaled confusion. He said there had already been setback increases made, at the behest of staff. Verizon then relayed a letter to the City of Ithaca threatening legal action over the new setbacks, but the city has held firm—at least to this point. 

McGonigal argued that they’ve already extended the distances to 150 feet in the interest of keeping people healthy and finding a way to compromise with the anti-5G sentiment in the community.

“Realistically, that’s the best we can get,” McGonigal said. “The Town of Ithaca is also working with that number. I can assure you everyone on this board cares about the health of this community.” 

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com