5G: Rollout or roll over?


The Marin General Services Authority quietly entered into a lease agreement with telecom giants Mobilitie/AT&T and Verizon in July 2017. The agreement allows for a dense distribution of hundreds of cell towers—known by the misnomer “small cell facilities”—throughout Marin County, including in unincorporated areas. The process did not include public input or notification, and was kept hidden until it was announced this June. It was an unwelcome surprise for the Board of Supervisors and the Community Development Agency.

The cell facilities are to be closely installed on light poles authorized by the services authority and on utility poles authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission in the public rights-of-way in our towns and residential neighborhoods. Unlike the distant cell towers to which we are accustomed, this type of cell facility uses a new technology that requires close installations—every two to five utility or light poles—and powerfully emits microwave radiation 24/7. It can be legally placed immediately adjacent to a residence or place of business. The small cells come with a host of equipment, including antennas, power supplies, electric meters, switches, cabling and boxes strapped to the sides of poles. Some may necessitate refrigerator-sized containers on the ground.

There is no doubt that absorbing constant radiation is harmful to everyone with an immune system, including migrating birds. The most vulnerable humans are cancer survivors, pregnant women, infants and children, and people struggling with chronic health conditions. If we look around, that is a sizable percentage of our population. Besides the health hazards, there are valid concerns about privacy, fire safety, aesthetics and property values.  

This rollout also has some sobering implications for our democracy. In an outsized grab for power, the Federal Communications Commission has announced that elected officials in our counties, cities and municipalities have no authority to determine or regulate what happens on their own public rights-of-way. Our own county has expressed concern, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Alliance of Counties have pledged to sue the commission. 

It seems apparent that the Federal Communications Commission has become a captured agency, run by and for the telecommunications industry. The commission’s current head is Ajit Pai, a former Verizon executive who ironically jokes about being a puppet for the industry. As State Senator Scott Weiner said last week regarding net neutrality, “Unlike Pai’s F.C.C., California is not run by the big telecom and cable companies.”

How do we enjoy the fastest, most secure internet service while protecting public health and safety? There is a safe, environmentally friendly and less expensive alternative: municipally owned fiber optic networks. Marin County has already shown the leadership to establish Marin Clean Energy, now a successful and celebrated model. James Heddle of West Marin’s Ecological Options Network suggests it is time for Marin Clean Fiber, a network that is sustainable, safe and super-fast. In the meantime, both Nicasio and Bolinas have fiber optic networks. Why not Point Reyes Station and the rest of West Marin?

A number of towns have mobilized to regulate this corporate 5G rollout by choosing local authority and public health and safety over industry profits. Petaluma, Mill Valley, San Anselmo and Ross have all recently passed local ordinances regulating the proposed installations. San Rafael is developing its own plan.

Our Board of Supervisors needs to pass an addendum to the county’s 1998 Telecommunications Plan to specifically protect West Marin from 5G cell towers being installed in our towns and neighborhoods. If you have any concerns, the Board of Supervisors needs to hear from you. Email our Supervisor Dennis Rodoni and copy the other supervisors.


Supervisor Dennis Rodoni: drodoni@marincounty.org

Supervisor Kate Sears: ksears@marincounty.org

Supervisor Damon Connolly: dconnolly@marincounty.org

Supervisor Katie Rice: krice@marincounty.org

Supervisor Judy Arnold: jarnold@marincounty.org

Rhonda Kutter, aide to Supervisor Rodoni: rkutter@marincounty.org


Barry Smith is a Point Reyes Station resident and founder of Coredialogue, a consultancy for collaborative leadership.