At least five cellphone towers in the Memphis area and another three operated by the state of Tennessee for emergency communications have been vandalized since December.
With no suspects identified or apprehended, state and local officials have their suspicions.
The vandalism, they believe, may be linked to COVID-19 conspiracy theories that 5G cellular technology is responsible for spreading through radio waves the pathogens that cause the virus — or (in a variation of the theory) that the towers' transmissions suppress individuals' immune systems, making them more susceptible to the virus.
"It is suspected that 5G conspiracy theories may have played a role because of similar activity in other states," said Wes Mosley, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
The conspiracy theory has taken root mostly outside the United States, prompting scores of torchings of cellphone towers in England and New Zealand. Outside Tennessee, however, there are few public reports of cellphone tower vandalism as a result of COVID-19 misinformation.
During a routine budget presentation to Gov. Bill Lee last week, Safety and Homeland Security Director Gregory Mays cited damages from the cellphone tower vandalism for running up the department's expected maintenance budget for the next fiscal year to about $1.3 million.
The Tennessee Advanced Communications Network serviced by the department's cellphone towers — which provides communication services for 68,000 public safety dispatch centers — is not covered under a warranty, Mays said.
Repairing damage to cellphone towers on which those emergency centers rely will require more taxpayer-funded dollars, officials said.
"There are some people who believe the 5G network is some way connected to the coronavirus pandemic, and they have caused destruction to some of the tower sites of 5G," Mays told the governor.
"We've had several in the Memphis area and some of our others," he said. "We've had three Tennessee patrol towers that have been damaged due to that. So the maintenance will help us cover any of that damage or anything we have from that."
An ABC News investigation, published in May, detailed several attacks on cellphone towers around the country as a result of the COVID-19 conspiracy theory. The investigation said 14 cell towers in western Tennessee, between February and April, were "purposely turned off by way of disabling their electrical breakers."
It's unknown whether these 14 towers are part of the Homeland Security network, which provides emergency communications.
Wes Moster, the department spokesman, said in a statement that "the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security received damage to the Tennessee Advanced Communications Network (TACN) towers earlier this year.
"However, the damage our department received isn't exactly the same pattern of damage seen in Memphis. Right now, it isn't clear if the damage to the cellphone towers in Memphis and the department's towers are related. It is still under investigation. No arrests have been made."
Memphis police have reported arson at five privately owned cellphone towers, as far back as December and through May.
In the earliest reports of vandalism — before COVID-19's existence was widely known in the United States — it's unknown why law enforcement officials are connecting the crimes to COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
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