Whitefish Adopts New Regulations Surrounding 5G Wireless Systems

Recent FCC ruling limits city’s ability to restrict or regulate wireless facilities in public ways

By Tristan Scott
Downtown Whitefish. Beacon File Photo

In an effort to protect the town’s “aesthetic value,” the Whitefish City Council on May 6 voted unanimously to adopt measures restricting small wireless systems known as 5G but they are limited in how they can do so, city officials say.

5G or fifth generation is the next wireless technology by wireless carriers. It is faster than 4G, but it requires a greater density of installations. The small wireless facilities are typically installed in high demand areas and have a range of service measured in hundreds of feet rather than traditional large cell towers that cover miles.

As part of their vote, councilors noted they were hamstrung by a recent decision by federal communications officials that limits local control.

On Sept. 26, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a declaratory ruling and order geared toward speeding up deployments of small wireless facilities designed to accommodate 5G systems, according to Whitefish City Attorney Angela Jacobs.

The ruling limits local governments in their abilities to regulate 5G systems, Jacobs said.

“We are not inviting 5G into Whitefish with open arms we are attempting to regulate 5G with the tools that we have left available to us after the FCC ruling,” Jacobs said.

Still, she said, introduction of the systems could be “quite ugly” if not for regulations put in place before the installations become commonplace and without regulation.

“The FCC unfortunately sharply curtails the state’s and local government’s ability to regulate small wireless facilities,” she continued, noting that Verizon has already contacted the city of Whitefish about potential applications.

The 5G installations often include an antenna with wires running to an instrument similar to the size of a backpack. Those are often located on utility poles or affixed to the side of a building spaced at frequent intervals.

Included in the public comment on May 6 was an outpouring of concern surrounding public health, but Jacobs said given that federal law restricted local governments from restricting emissions standards, council’s hands were tied.

“I just want the public to understand that we know we are not solving the biggest questions that you have, which are the health concerns” Whitefish Councilor Frank Sweeney said.” “We are barred from doing that. We just don’t have that ability. This might look like we are putting lipstick on a pig, but we’ve got to do it. We have to do something to protect this city as best as we can.”

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