As 5G goes online, Salt Lake City residents worry about a future full of unsightly poles

Homeowners, city say they have no control over cellphone companies because of state law.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dorothea Rosenberger stands next to the base for a 5G tower in front of her home that is on the historic registry, on 1100 East, in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

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Dorothea “Doro” Rosenberger lives in a 120-year-old house in Salt Lake City’s East Central neighborhood. Her home is on the historic registry, which means she has to get special permission to replace things like windows and the heating system, Rosenberger said.

So she was surprised to see crews last December installing the concrete base of a 5G tower in her park strip without even giving her notice.

“The engineer said ‘this is modern day, you can’t stop modern day,” Rosenberger said. “But when I want to put in modern-day windows, I can’t do it.”

Rosenberger has since learned that 5G towers from different telecom companies could show up on every corner of her intersection and there’s nothing homeowners can do about it. The Utah Legislature passed SB189 in 2018, the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act, anticipating the rapid worldwide deployment of the nation’s next generation of wireless network technology. The bill allows wireless companies to place 5G structures pretty much anywhere in the public right of way.

“I question the technology, if that’s what we signed up for as a community,” Rosenberger said.

She also wonders why wireless companies can’t at least be required to place their transmitters somewhere more discreet.

5G has many benefits — it’s incredibly fast. It could be as much as 100 times faster than 4G, although actual speeds vary for complicated reasons. Transmitters for 5G are also much smaller than the massive cellular towers most of us are familiar with, sometimes unconvincingly disguised as trees.

The smaller size means 5G requires a lot more signals placed closer together, but they can also be installed on existing public structures like power poles, street lights and bus stops. That’s what was supposed to happen in Salt Lake City, according to city engineer Matthew Cassel.

“We don’t have a lot of control over what’s going in. Our guidelines specify some criteria we hoped would be followed, but [that’s] not necessarily so,” he said. “The city’s preference is that small cells are mounted on existing poles so they blend in with what’s already there.”

5G construction

Since the first 5G tower appeared in Salt Lake City in May 2019, telecom companies have installed 167 more small cell structures. Another 50 are currently permitted and under construction and 341 have preliminary plans. How many towers wireless companies ultimately intend to construct remains unknown.

The Salt Lake Tribune sent a list of questions to a spokesperson for Verizon (city representatives said the other wireless companies do not have direct, centralized contacts). The spokesperson responded with a brief statement.

“Verizon uses a balanced approach to engineering the best possible network given the local community’s needs. We worked over a significant period of time with the City to develop the small cell pole designs you see today,” she said. “Verizon does not discuss future network build plans publicly.”

So far, wireless companies are placing the 5G small cells on poles that are 30 to 45 feet high, Cassel said.

“It’s cheaper for them to put up their own pole, because they don’t have to pay rent on poles that are existing,” he said. “If they put it on a Rocky Mountain Power pole, Rocky Mountain Power would charge them a fee. If they put it on a city post, we would charge a fee.”

Sen. Curtis Bramble, who sponsored SB189, said he wasn’t aware of any complaints from municipalities over 5G-related construction activities. He added that representatives of the telecom industry and cities, including Salt Lake City, were at the table as lawmakers drafted the bill.

“Utah was the first state in the nation to have this kind of legislation, where they had industry and cities come to a consensus,” Bramble said.

The intent of the law was to encourage wireless companies to place the 5G transmitters on existing structures, the Provo Republican said. And he wondered if Salt Lake City was trying to charge too much rent for small cells.

“There’s not an incentive for a company to spend more on their own poles than using existing infrastructure,” Bramble said.

The Tribune sent inquiries to Provo and Ogden about 5G disputes, but city representatives said they were unaware of any issues.

Cassel, the Salt Lake City engineer, said the city can only charge what’s allowed in state code, which is $50 a year. And it’s not unusual that the Salt Lake area has had more complaints about 5G compared to other cities, since the majority of installations likely happen there due to its density, he said.

“We’d love to have more teeth in [this] matter but we simply don’t,” Cassel said. “I think the biggest rub people have is they’re not even being told when these permits are approved.”

Surrounded by poles

Kathy Feigal, a homeowner in the Yalecrest neighborhood, said her neighbors raised alarm about a pole going up on her historic property after seeing a brief notice in the newspaper.

“A guy from the city said there’s going to be so many of them you’re not going to notice,” she said. “Everybody in the neighborhood, and even the guy with the city agreed, this is a horrible spot for this. But there’s nothing I can do.”

Feigal said she’s tried everything to block the 5G tower, from online petitions to calling City Council members and the mayor’s office.

“I have been working night and day to find a way to oppose this or find a better location,” she said. “Apparently, this type of tower only covers one tenth of a mile. What is the city in for, especially since Verizon is not compelled to let AT&T, Cricket, or any other company use their tower?”

City Council Member Dan Dugan, whose district includes many historical homes, said he’s working with the council and mayor to try and reduce the number of poles popping up across the city.

“I talked to one resident months ago,” Dugan said. “He lives on a corner. On each side of his street, he’s got two light poles, a utility pole, and now there’s going to be a 5G pole. So the whole view outside of his little house is going to be poles.”

At a recent work session, the City Council discussed requirements that all companies working in rights-of-way provide proof they notified adjoining property owners as well as provided contact information. City officials, however, are still in the discussion and ordinance-drafting phase as they mull what to do about 5G construction specifically, Dugan said.

“I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to look,” Dugan said. “My push is that we try to reduce the number of poles or add them to other things, that would be my ultimate goal. Will we get there? That’s to be seen.”

Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this article.