The Woodstock Planning Board pressed for further details about T-Mobile’s plans for 5G signals after it learned some proposed equipment is capable of the new technology.
“We were told there would be no 5G. Now there is,” Planning Board member John LaValle said at a June 17 meeting where it considered a site plan to antenna modifications on the town-owned tower on California Quarry Road.
“The antennas and the upgrades that are being proposed here tonight will be 5G capable,” said Richard Zajac, a representative of Crown Castle Telecom, which maintains the tower.
There are many similar modifications happening along the East Coast, he said.
“Just about 99% of them involve upgrades to antennas that are 5G capable,” Zajac said.
Zajac explained that there are different varieties of 5G, the new wireless technology that is meant to replace the current 4G LTE system. An ultra high-speed data variant uses millimeter-wave signals but cannot travel as far and uses multiple cell sites mounted to utility poles. Those are limited to densely populated urban areas and not as economically feasible in rural areas.
Another variant uses frequencies similar to LTE to offer higher speed data, but not as high as millimeter wave.
Opponents have said 5G technology, particularly millimeter wave, has harmful health effects. The town’s Communication Infrastructure Committee has favored land-based fiber infrastructure for high-speed data over wireless technology.
Zajac said while he couldn’t speak about T-Mobile’s future plans, he knows of no other upgrades in Woodstock.
“The reason for the proposal is because T-Mobile wants to make sure that its signal carries throughout the Town of Woodstock and the surrounding areas so the users don’t have dropped calls, have a good experience with their cell phone, and data and signal coverage are the two main components of that,” Zajac said.
Planning Board vice chair Stuart Lipkind asked Zajac if he knew whether additional infrastructure was needed in order to make 5G functional in Woodstock.
Zajac did not know, but spoke based on his general knowledge.
“You have one cell phone tower in town. It’s not a large area compared to the City of Boston, the City of New York, to big urban areas. The ability to propagate a signal across the Town of Woodstock is much easier than those areas,” Zajac said.
“I don’t know and I can’t speak to T-Mobile’s future plans and their signal and necessarily how much infrastructure they would need,” said Zajac. “All I can speak to is the fact that they are looking to enhance their signal at this time in the Town of Woodstock, using the existing infrastructure that’s in place.”
Included in the application was a pamphlet explaining the basic principle and benefits of 5G technology, which prompted Lipkind’s line of questioning.
Zajac said the pamphlet was merely included to educate the board on the new technology. “The short answer is this application is not going to be doing utility poles with fiber. This particular application is indicated in the construction drawings, the cover letter, the outline for the project and the applications that were filled out, dealing with antenna upgrades.”
Lipkind again pressed for answers on whether T-Mobile anticipates making any further improvements related to 5G.
“I understand you’re not asking for permission to do them today,” Lipkind said. “You’re only asking about the change out on the tower of the antennas and putting in a couple new antennas. But you know, your application has already told the Planning Board that this is how 5G works and that you need these small cell installations on top of street poles. So it doesn’t do you any service to then tell me well, we can ignore that. You’ve asked us to consider that. And so I need to know.”
But some on the Planning Board felt they lack the expertise to make an informed decision.
“My clarification question is what does the 5G that you are proposing give T-Mobile if they don’t do further work,” said Lipkind. “This seems like the camel has its nose under the tent.”
Zajac said the antenna upgrades give T-Mobile a better signal in and around Woodstock and provides better data capacity.
“It’s clear that the Planning Board is asking the applicant for additional information in order to be able to assess whether this meets the criteria for approval,” Lipkind said. “And the other are the questions that I asked for whether the applicant anticipates any infrastructure installations beyond the changes that is at the tower in order to bring 5G to the town.”
Planning Board chair Peter Cross said the town needs better cell coverage but wasn’t sure if the proposal will help meet that goal. “And believe me, I work all over the whole town,” he said. “Many times I have no cell phone coverage. We can’t even get GPS to work. So the town would like to have better coverage. I don’t know that this is providing that or if it’s just making what exists better,” he said.
The Planning Board ultimately concluded it needs to hire an expert to interpret the application and represent the town.
5G opponent Steve Romine has worked with attorney Andrew Campanelli, who has expertise in cellular technology. He is willing to work with the town, but some wonder if it poses a conflict of interest.
“If the attorney has a conflict between clients, that’s an issue,” Planning board member Judith Kerman said.
“I attended Andrew Campanelli’s talk and he seems very competent,” Planning Board member Conor Wenk said. “I don’t know if it would be even making us more vulnerable or if it’s the kind of thing that could get us in trouble.”
The board will consider John Lyons, the attorney who represents the Planning Board on other issues.
“The thing is I’m not sure at this point whether T-Mobile is in competition with Verizon to provide better service and these guys are battling out competition or whether they’re providing the town with a better service,” Cross said. “All you have to do is look at their TV ads. T-Mobile is advertising nationwide coverage for 5G and Verizon.. and how they try to sell it to you is by showing you a map that Verizon doesn’t have it. For us to get in a battle between two corporations is nuts.”