A new wireless cellular antenna mounted on a streetlight at the southeast corner of First Avenue and East 66th Street. It's just down the block from another light pole, at 404 East 66th Street, where residents are trying to block the installation of an antenna across the street from an elementary school. Photo courtesy of Anat Rosenberg
The history of New York City can be told in its humble streetlights: First, in the 1760s, there were oil lamps. By the 1820s, they were replaced by gas-fired lights. Then, in 1880, the first electric lights were introduced.
Now, the municipal street lighting system is going through yet another defining transformation. In effect, it is being made over into a powerful digital device to usher in the next generation of internet connectivity.
Not everyone is in love with the prospect. And on one Upper East Side block — where work crews within days are expected to reconfigure a lone city-owned standard light pole — the backlash has already begun.
Thousands of lampposts and traffic poles are being outfitted with small wireless cellular antennas as telecom players tap into city infrastructure to fuel the turbo-charged growth of broadband and cellular services.
The idea is to provide hyper-fast, super-reliable mobile coverage and sharply boost capacity in the run-up to 5G, the fifth-generation wireless system, that’s expected to be introduced citywide by 2020.
Why place the new technology atop street furniture? The needs of 5G hardware differ from early-generation tech. Traditionally, cell towers were sited far apart, on hills, skyscrapers and apartment buildings. The delivery of the new high-speed wireless signals, by contrast, relies on compact equipment, more of it positioned closer to street level, and spaced out every 250 to 550 feet.
Bottom line: All of Manhattan is being rewired.
Crowned with a 3.5-foot antenna attached to a utility pole, and featuring a high-tech contraption the size of a pizza box or suitcase, the units, installed over the past couple of years, almost never generate notice, fanfare or controversy.
That’s changing now on East 66th Street. Residents of the crosstown block between York and First Avenues are alarmed that a streetlight at mid-block is being reengineered to host a cellular antenna with no advance notice to the community, and directly opposite the entrance to a public elementary school.
“We believe it’s a health hazard as the antenna will be emitting constant radio-frequency radiation 24/7,” said Anat Rosenberg, a writer and editor whose second-floor apartment overlooks the streetlight.
“And we’re doubly outraged that they’ve been allowed to place the antenna in such clos¬e proximity to a school – with no notice of any kind to anyone,” she added. “The city is potentially jeopardizing the health of its smallest children.”
Rosenberg, who describes herself as the “mom of two small kids who wants to live a quiet life without having an antenna in my living room,” is not alone.NETWORKING AGAINST A NETWORK
The center of opposition to the pending installation is the Hardenbrook House, a normally staid red-brick condominium at 404 East 66th Street with 13 floors and 250 residents in 150 apartments. The light pole is nine feet away from its front door on the south side of the street.
A few yards away, on the north side of the street, sits P.S. 183, the Robert Louis Stevenson School, at 419 East 66th Street, which teaches 550-plus students, from pre-K to fifth grade, in 28 classrooms. Some of the school’s parents and teachers were described as distraught.
“The brains of young kids aren’t developed yet,” said Rande Coleman, the president of Hardenbrook House’s condo board and a real estate broker who’s lived in the building since 1976.
“People with small children don’t want them exposed to potentially dangerous electro-magnetic fields, and residents don’t want radiation right next to our building,” Coleman added. “This is not like a microwave oven that you can simply turn on or off. This is a 24-7 operation.”
Neighbors say they were alerted to the project when work crews with jackhammers began preliminary site work, including micro-trenching under the sidewalk, at 7 a.m. on March 24. Other crews returned over the next three weeks, and a city franchisee, ExteNet Systems, confirmed it would install the antenna at some point in April.
Despite neighborhood fears, the American Cancer Society contends there’s “very little evidence” to support a connection between cell towers and cancer risk. Still, 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries in 2017 called for a moratorium on the rollout of 5G until potential hazards could be fully researched.
The city says there is zero cause for alarm: “The great majority of installations are only noticed by New Yorkers when their cell service improves, and we’re happy to work with the community to answer their questions and assuage concerns,” said Stephanie Raphael, a spokesperson for the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.
Known as DoITT, the city agency that handles technological upgrades says there are “no health or safety hazards related to this pole or the other light pole installations across the city.” It says all pole installations are in “strict compliance with federal standards.”
But federal precedence curbs city clout. Not only does the Federal Communications Commission set safety and emissions standards, but the city is also “preempted” from making siting decisions “based on perceived health or safety concerns,” DoITT documents show.
The agency confirmed no advanced notice was provided on 66th Street before work on the light pole began, saying the installation “did not require any notifications.”
In a statement, DoITT said it is “happy to conduct radio-frequency testing on this pole in particular to assuage any specific concerns once construction is completed.”
But Hardenbrook House residents are seeking to block the project. They circulated a Change.org petition, urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to “Stop the Installation of a Cellular Antenna Opposite PS 183!” So far, their 104 signatures include the building’s superintendent, a doorman, two of three condo board members and several parents at the school.
Community Board 8 is watching closely, said Will Brightbill, its district manager. “CB 8 expects the city and franchisee to be in compliance with all federal, state and local laws to protect the safety of Board 8 residents, tourists and New Yorkers citywide,” he said.
Options appear limited. Occasionally, that’s proved vexing for East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos, an attorney who’s studied legal issues involving wireless.
Residents are seldom exercised about mobile phone safety, he said, but every so often, they’ll express concerns about cell antennas positioned above their apartments.
“I have spent more time than I care to admit researching the case law surrounding the placement of antennas in response to these concerns — only to be frustrated by the federal preemption permitting placement anywhere subject to limited zoning restrictions,” Kallos added.
As a result, unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, a vast network of 1,611 cellular antenna units has been assembled on Manhattan street poles, with 1,209 of them sited on avenues and intersections. More recently, 402 have been placed on cross streets, DoITT data shows.
“I am by no means a technophobe,” said Omer Berger, a software developer and Rosenberg’s husband. “But the burden is on the city to prove this technology isn’t harmful to my family — rather than on me as a taxpaying citizen to prove that it is harmful.”