As 5G Devices Begin to Appear in New Orleans, Some Find Fault

Hundreds of the antennas will be deployed in the city, including dozens throughout the historic French Quarter, but some residents are voicing concerns about safety and aesthetics.

by Jessica Williams, The Advocate / March 19, 2019
Shutterstock/f11photo

(TNS) — Recently, two 8-foot-tall black cylinders popped up on a street corner about a block from Ken Caron's home, pushing the street signs that stood there a few extra feet higher and leaving the French Quarter resident puzzled.

What were those things, and what were they doing in the Quarter?

As Caron and many other residents would soon learn, the cylinders were some of the first placements of the backbone for new 5G wireless devices aimed at boosting smartphone speeds throughout New Orleans.

Hundreds of such devices — including dozens in and around the French Quarter, according to a review of permits authorizing their construction — were approved by city officials last week as part of agreements to bring the emerging technology to the city.

In approving the deals, New Orleans became the latest city in the U.S. to aid companies like Verizon and AT&T in their race to implement 5G, the world’s most advanced wireless technology that is estimated to eventually make Web browsing at least eight times faster for consumers.

It also became the latest city to be roiled by a debate over the cylindrical, or in some cases robotic-looking, devices’ placement on street signs or utility poles near homes and businesses.

For the technology to work, the equipment needs to be close to street level. But some residents have safety concerns. Others say they're plain ugly.

“It’s just monstrous,” said Caron, who said the tubes pushed the one-way and stop signs at Burgundy and Gov. Nicholls streets a full story into the air. “It doesn’t belong in the oldest residential neighborhood in the state.”

Other than Caron, the president of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization, others have said the devices are too close to their homes and that they had no voice in their placement.

In a nutshell, 5G is made possible by "small cell" networks that have a shorter range than traditional cell towers and are made up of nodes that must be placed closer together and nearer to the ground in order to work.

The small cells can increase bandwidth in dense urban areas that may not have the space for more large towers. Because the cells are nearer to consumers, the cellular service that users receive tends to be swifter.

Telecom companies have promised 5G devices in at least some markets this year.

Staffers in Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and on the City Council, who have worked for years on a rewrite of the city’s code governing the new technology, said it could mean swifter downloads of data in technologies the city is already using, such as its real-time crime camera network. It might also lead to more advanced technologies, like gunshot sensors.

"We are expecting that 5G will allow us to deliver more information faster so that we can use that information to make real-time decisions, similar to the way adding more lanes to a highway eliminates congestion," said Kimberly LaGrue, Cantrell's chief information officer.

But the rules for installing the devices are different from what residents might expect. Unlike zoning changes or additions to private property, which require public hearings, the small cell nodes are being installed on public right of ways, which means the city is able to control more of the process.

LaGrue said that each device is reviewed by 10 different departments to ensure that its design matches the neighborhood in which it was placed. The device near Caron’s home in the French Quarter, for example, appears different from one affixed to a utility pole at First and Constance streets in the Irish Channel. In that location, a cluster of boxes, wires and cones point downward from near the top of the pole.

While residents can contact the Department of Parks and Parkways or Safety and Permits if they are concerned about the devices, their placement is approved by the city wholesale and is not subject to the individual reviews that property owners seeking to make significant changes to their properties would be subject to, said Keith Lampkin, chief of staff for City Councilman Jason Williams, and Erin Spears, head of the council's Utilities Regulatory Office.

Still, Harvey Stern, who opposes the devices chiefly because he is concerned about the effect they may have on people's safety, said that process robs the public of its right to have a say in the devices's placement. “This is a public land use issue, that the public won’t get to opine on,” Stern said.

Residents in other cities have criticized the devices for similar reasons. Though the public’s exposure to the radio frequencies the devices emit has been raised by some groups, Williams, the council president, cited statements from the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization that there is no conclusive evidence that the existing cell phone towers cause cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified radio frequencies as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” — a label also given to components found in coffee.

Caron, for his part, isn’t worried about potential health problems: “From what I’ve read, that’s not a big concern,” he said.

More problematic, he said, is a process that does not give him and other residents enough say in the devices’ design and placement.

©2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.