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Laguna Beach cautiously makes plans for updating wireless infrastructure amid debate over 5G

Laguna Beach cautiously makes plans for updating wireless infrastructure amid debate over 5G
The Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday directed city staff to create a strategy and broadband master plan for adding small cell sites and expanding wireless infrastructure in general. (File Photo)

After hours of back-and-forth from residents and telecommunications company representatives, the Laguna Beach City Council this week approved laying the groundwork for regulations on updating wireless infrastructure around the city.

The Federal Communications Commission rolled out new regulations last year to streamline the introduction of 5G wireless technology — to the chagrin of many cities that have complained about an intrusion on their jurisdiction.

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Federal law prohibits Laguna Beach from regulating telecom facilities “in a manner that materially inhibits personal wireless service,” a city staff report said. However, the city still can determine the placement and aesthetics of new cell facilities.

The council Tuesday sought to claim the city’s regulatory power over the expansion of wireless technologies in the city.

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“My goal would be to minimize [the number of antennas and cell towers], have as few as we can have in town and comply with whatever the federal statute is,” Mayor Bob Whalen said. “We ought to absolutely control the aesthetics. The stuff they’re throwing up on the poles is ugly. It’s terrible.”

On a unanimous council vote, city staff will design a strategy for how to implement an efficient permit process for small cell sites and create a broadband master plan to address policies for adding small cell sites and expanding wireless infrastructure in general.

The Laguna Beach Planning Commission has received many applications in recent weeks for permits to affix wireless communications facilities to street lights and other poles around the city. All applications are for 4G, said the city’s undergrounding program manager, Wade Brown. But, he said, the equipment could be converted to 5G in the future.

The council voted to amend the municipal code with new conditions for fiber installations but struck down a point that would have allowed companies to do speculative work to explore future fiber deployment.

Several community members urged the city to fight the FCC’s regulations.

“[I] plead with you to be brave and stand up to the FCC and the unreasonable and unprecedented federal intrusion into our lives,” said resident Amy Jackson. “This is a breach of our local authority.”

Consulting firm HR Green told the council that to accommodate 5G, the city would need to add small cell sites around the city, including in residential areas.

5G uses waves at the top of the radio spectrum that previously haven’t been used for telecommunication. The higher waves allow for faster data transfer.

But about a dozen residents expressed concern that the expansion of wireless technology for 5G could have detrimental health effects because of more exposure to radiation.

“It has a lot to offer, but it’s also very dangerous,” said resident Steven Sadleir, who said he previously worked in the telecom investment banking industry. “Most people don’t realize the dangers of long-term exposures to microwave radiation.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said, “I would like to see us wait until 5G has refined its product, because it is absolutely clear that it is bad for our health.”

Telecom representatives encouraged the city to embrace the technology.

Jesus Roman, associate general counsel and vice president of government affairs at Verizon, said the World Health Organization, American Cancer Society and others have said “there are no known risks or harmful effects.”

Roman asked the council to allow Verizon to deploy fiber as “a backbone for our network throughout the entire Orange County system.”

Some telecom representatives who spoke in support of adding small cell sites said 5G technology would enable first responders to assess a scene before arriving and would accelerate access to 911. A couple of members of the city’s Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee agreed.

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