Not in My Backyard: Educating Citizens on Wireless

0319 Fiber Optics Photo Credit: Shutterstock / kstudija
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / kstudija

Recently, I attended a meeting for local residents on my city’s plans to allow numerous “small cell” cellular sites around the city. The city’s website showed more than 600 potential sites, all on city-owned street lights. No utility poles were included because independent utilities own them. About 100 permits had already been issued. I attended to get an update on the city’s plans and learn if we were going to get better cellular service—right now it’s terrible. The meeting did not turn out as I had expected.

The city sent a person from the Department of Public Works, a city attorney and another attorney who consults with the city and advertises himself as a telecom expert. No one representing a service provider attended. About 40 citizens showed up. Instead of discussing the city plans and progress issuing permits and the plans of service providers to install new sites, the meeting focused on (or devolved into) a discussion of NIMBY (not in my backyard).

The attendees’ main issue was how safe these cell sites were. One person said one of the first small cells installed was on the corner beside his house and right outside his bedroom window. Others were worried and wanted to know if cell sites were planned for their neighborhoods.

The lawyer who was presented as the telecom expert said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed the service providers to determine site locations and that the FCC said cellular systems were safe. When questioned on these answers, he became defensive and argumentative, taking a strict legal stand. That did not go over well. Saying the FCC said cellular was OK was not an acceptable answer. Nor was it mentioned that the FCC safety studies were done almost 20 years ago.

After the meeting, I talked with several participants. Nobody really understood what was going on. I asked one if she used a cellphone and had Wi-Fi in her house. Of course she did. When I asked if she saw other Wi-Fi systems from her neighbors when she connected her devices, she said there were 30 or 40 of them. I then explained cellular small cells and Wi-Fi access points operated on similar frequencies with similar, but quite low, power levels. Large cell towers have much more powerful signals, so being near a big cell site causes much more exposure. That only made her more uncomfortable with cell sites and Wi-Fi.

I was highly surprised by the lack of the city’s preparation and its expert’s lack of sensitivity. This is an important topic that involves cities and their various departments, citizens and service providers. Everyone involved in these projects needs to understand what is going on and be able to discuss the issues intelligently. So far, I’d give all parties an F.

Service providers are just hyping how good 5G is going to be while building 4G/LTE small cell networks without explanation. Cities seem unprepared for citizen complaints and don’t have people who understand the technology and applications well enough to explain it to people. People are being kept in the dark or fed nothing but PR, so it’s no wonder why they get upset when they discover contractors installing small cells near their homes.

I don’t believe we can expect the citizens to find understandable technical explanations online; the web is unfortunately best at selling promises or inciting fear and doubt. I’ve been searching for useful information, and if I can’t find any, there is a problem. Service providers are too busy talking to Wall Street to bother educating their customers.

That leaves it to the cities and their contractors. I have been investigating what goes on in my city by talking to contractors I see working in our neighborhoods. They tell me which service providers are building systems and where. I’m also getting calls from city employees and contractors wanting to know more about these new wireless systems.

I’ve been sending them to the Fiber U self-study program Fiber For Wireless (fiberu.org) to begin learning about wireless. I’m also working on a simple explanation of the technology that will lay out the issues in terms the average consumer can understand. If you are a contractor working with cellular providers, I suggest you become more aware of the technology and the issues so, when asked, you can coherently explain what’s going on.

About the Author

Jim Hayes

Fiber Optics Columnist and Contributing Editor

Jim Hayes is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.

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