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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Another cell tower spat underscores the need to back up local officials with a better, modern regulatory framework

First Pittsfield, then Lenox and now Sheffield. Heated debates over the safety of cell towers are igniting in communities across the Berkshires. As the “fifth-generation” buildout of wireless communication facilities continues — and many Berkshire towns try to catch up to previous generations’ cell reception standards — these debates will keep popping up.

And if they’re anything like the debates we’ve seen thus far, that means more headaches and scrapes for local leaders trying to navigate this thorny issue. Like their counterparts on the Pittsfield Board of Health and Lenox Planning Board, Sheffield officials are now between a rock and a hard place. Any local officials wrangling with this issue will find themselves in a similarly precarious position, caught between some folks’ impassioned calls for preventive measures against cell towers and a dearth of comprehensive scientific evidence on the long-term health impacts of exposure to microwave transmissions, with little procedural wiggle room.

Sheffield’s cell tower spat, like the ones before it and those that will inevitably follow, underscore the need for state and federal officials to give a helping hand to these outgunned municipal panels. As we’ve argued before, that should come in the form of a more robust and thoroughly updated regulatory framework that town planners and health boards can rely on when wireless facility opponents press their public safety case in town meetings and tower permit hearings.

We’ve expressed skepticism about far-reaching claims of myriad health problems caused by the radiofrequency emissions from cell towers that make our mobile devices work. Like all substantive claims, they should require evidence demonstrating not just correlational but causal links. Meanwhile, many cell tower opponents vociferously oppose structures near their backyards or in their properties’ sightlines while showing little curiosity about evidence for or against their claims that might be gleaned from the nearly two-dozen other 5G nodes located across Berkshire County, many of which stand in populous areas and have garnered few if any health complaints.

Still, cell tower opponents have a point: While wireless technology has evolved rapidly in the 21st century, regulatory standards have not. Local governments seeking to restrict the number or placement of cell towers are limited by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, while the Federal Communications Commission’s radio frequency emissions rules also date to the late 1990s. That means a decades-old law hamstrings municipal boards’ options when these debates pop up, while the only federal guidance they can cite when pressed by residents hasn’t been meaningfully updated since 10 years before the invention of the iPhone. As such, local health officials and planners relying on that guidance can’t really say “no” to their neighbors’ health concerns — they can only say “maybe.”

Even as we view the more strident cell tower health concerns with skepticism, this status quo is unfair to concerned citizens and unhelpful for the local officials trying to do right by those constituents. As with any matter with a lot of data to sift through and more heat than light shed on it, updating and expanding this regulatory guidance is a big ask. But it’s one that the feds owe local officials who are going to keep running into this wall as wireless network expectations expand and more powerful towers are cited. The wireless communications industry won’t be thrilled with a closer and overdue examination of their operations, while some cell tower opponents are dug in enough that no amount of contrary evidence will be enough to move them. But when it comes to questions like these at the intersection of technological development and public health, the government owes citizens and local officials alike a closer look at the truth to be found somewhere between these poles.

Berkshire County is fortunate to have a powerful voice in the House of Representatives in U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, as well as a strong fighter for consumer protection representing them in the Senate in Sen. Elizabeth Warren. We call on them and the entire Massachusetts delegation to press this necessary update to the regulatory framework that affects all of us in an increasingly connected world.

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