The hype about 5G | Part 2

Note: This is part two of a two-part series about 5G in the San Juan Islands. To read part one, visit

Presently, rural communities in the U.S. will not install and deploy 5G’s much-hyped, extremely high frequency bands — up in the 24 GHz to 52 GHz range discussed in Part one — too many trees and too few people — despite the Federal Communications Commission Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. No 5G antennas are up and operating in San Juan County. Yet.

Jai Ferguson, senior manager of corporate communications for T-Mobile said 5G can also be deployed on lower bands, it’s just a matter of how much available capacity that band has.

“Our strategy has been to launch 5G on 600MHz spectrum, which has allowed us to deploy in many rural areas,” Ferguson said. “Rural deployment is super important for us, we’re in the midst of closing our deal with Sprint so we can bring fast, strong, low and mid-band spectrum to areas like the islands.”

Last October, the federal government approved T-Mobile’s $26.5 billion purchase of Sprint. The commitment facilitates expeditious deployment of 5G service to cover 85 percent of rural Americans within three years and 90 percent of rural Americans within six years. Sprint is owned by the Japanese conglomerate Softbank and T-Mobile is owned by Germany’s Deutsche Telekom.

According to SJC Information Technology Manager Tony Harrell, neither T-Mobile nor Rock Island has spoken to the county recently regarding 5G availability.

“At one time Rock Island mentioned that it would eventually get here but no timeframe,” he said.

But Ferguson says 5G on lower frequencies — the same range currently used by 2G, 3G and 4G legacy systems — is on its way to Eastsound and Friday Harbor. Rock Island Executive Vice President Alan Smith says he has not yet received an inquiry from T-Mobile directly, adding that the FCC and individual carriers control the rollout timing of 5G nationwide. Based on laws ascribed by the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC has worked to accelerate wireless deployment and remove infrastructure and investment barriers, successfully stripping local governments from regulating or restricting the installation of the new, wireless cellular technology for anything but aesthetic purposes. Those who do take action are creating ordinances that put their cities at risk of being sued by the telecoms, as happened last year in Rochester, N.Y. Verizon Wireless sued on the premise that the city was charging too much rent for space on its utility poles where 5G antennas would be installed.

Smith said, “Based on our challenging topography, the low band, such as the television spectrum in the 600MHz, is the most viable solution in our local area. High band frequencies, such as what are (sic) used in high density areas like New York City simply do not propagate well enough in our county.”

Orcas Island-based electrical engineer Andreas Wachter says that at the lower frequency, in theory, carriers like T-Mobile will be able to cover all of San Juan County with approximately 10 to 50 cell sites.

“They won’t get the crazy high speeds they’d be getting on the 24+ GHz band,” Wachter said.

In urban areas, deploying millions of 5G wireless cells so close to one another has elicited health concerns. In 2017, more than one hundred and eighty doctors and scientists from 36 countries appealed to the European Union for a moratorium on 5G adoption until the effects of the expected increase in low-level radiation were studied by “scientists independent from industry.” Some islanders say 5G presents uncertain health and social implications and would prefer not to mar the charm of the islands they call home. For Janice Wiemeyer, who spent years researching isolated places where her daughter — who she says suffered from a controversial illness known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome — could find refuge, it’s a deeply frustrating and familiar phenomenon.

“To me, the most dangerous thing is that we’re going ahead with this, like rushing into the night, without determining if it’s safe or not,” she said. “The standards used to determine whether 5G is safe are extremely outdated.”

The United States Federal Communications Commission last updated its guidelines for evaluating environmental effects of radiofrequency radiation in 1996. The FCC’s guidelines for radiofrequency exposure indicate that the power of the radio wave hitting a human body must not exceed 1000uW per square centimeter averaged over 30 minutes. This exposure is 100 times higher than the safety guidelines imposed by both China and Russia.

Initial measurement studies from the International Commission of Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection suggest that exposure from 5G antennas will be “approximately similar to that from 3G and 4G antennas.” The FCC has sole discretion on whether the emissions of an electronic device are safe.

According to experts on the biological effects of electromagnetic radiation, including Christopher M. Collins, a professor of radiology at New York University and Dr. Marvin Ziskin, professor of medical physics at Temple University School of Medicine, many independent experiments support the claim that radio waves become safer at higher frequencies, not more dangerous, due to a shielding effect of human skin. The main effect of non-ionizing radiation, they say, is the heating up of body tissue.

“The higher the frequency of the electromagnetic field, the stronger the absorption at the body surface, therefore the higher the frequency, the shorter the distance the field can penetrate into the body,” concludes The EMF Portal, an internet information platform funded by environmental and public health ministries from five countries as well as some telecommunications carriers.

Dr. Martin Pall, a professor of biochemistry at Washington State University says there is an invariable link between EMFs and the detrimental overloading of calcium in human cells. This can cause equal amounts of negative or positive health effects depending on which kind of cells in your body are implicated.

For Andrew Marino, a biophysicist and lawyer who spent his career in the bioelectromagnetics research laboratory at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Syracuse, New York, data collection is skewed. Often studies are conducted on water molecules under the pretense that the human body is predominantly water. Marino says “electromagnetic pollution”, which cause changes in brain waves, can ultimately affect the immune system and lead to a variety of disease states. He says science has not yet ripened to the point where the remedial steps needed to protect human health are clear, writing that physicists and biologists, though both objectively accustomed to the electromagnetic field, have different perspectives regarding its conventions.

As he writes in his book “Going Somewhere: Truth About A Life in Science,” “There will never be final answers, only differences in perspectives. I don’t mean something real that can be looked at in different ways, I mean different perspectives regarding what is real.” He says EMF standards set by the FCC represent a political choice influenced by telecommunications carriers, not an objective scientific determination.

“Obviously the human body is a lot more complex than just water,” Wachter wrote, adding that the substitution of the human body for water in experiments is simply a first-approximation.

Long-time local wellness professional Regina Zwilling said living in a household of sensitive people is part of the reason she’s skeptical of electromagnetic radiation as well as of the social implications of a growing, mobile-first world. She says she’s left wondering what county regulations are possible.

The Telecommunication Act of 1996 — approved during the Clinton administration after the industry spent millions of dollars in lobbying efforts — gives telecommunication companies immunity if a cell phone antenna or tower ever causes negative health effects. If telecom companies stay compliant with FCC guidelines, no one can tell them to remove any kind of wireless service based on health issues.

In response, Montana recently passed bill HJR-13 “urging Congress to amend the federal Telecommunications Act to account for health effects of siting small cell network equipment in residential areas.”

Additionally, anti-radiation activists in Santa Barbara, California delayed voting decisions on carrier licensing agreements within their city councils for 90 days. Legislators in only four other states — Louisiana, Massachusetts, Hawaii and New Hampshire — have proposed bills that would mandate further study of health effects or else urge Congress to do so.

But San Juan County passed a “joint-use wireless ordinance” which allows wireless companies like T-Mobile and Verizon an expedited permitting process if they adhere to basic aesthetic requests. San Juan County Councilmember Rick Hughes has asked himself, “Does our county need to get involved and regulate 5G?”

“It’s a brand new technology,” he said. “I’m not sure our county has looked at what that might mean. I’m not sure we have any direct plan on how to regulate it. That’s part of what our job is: to listen to the community and find a balance point. I’m sure our Board of Health will ask the Health Director to investigate what the negative side effects of 5G are. But oftentimes, the activity has to happen first and then we look at it and make assessments.”

5G, the next generation of wireless technology, is hyped to deliver unprecedented societal change globally. It is an extremely high frequency, high speed wireless cellular technology that will reduce delay — or latency— as well as increase reliability and offer higher capacity. Latency in 5G may be so low and data speeds so fast, it will be able to mimic human reflexes. This has the potential to connect everything from smart factories and autonomous cars to refrigerators, washing machines, dog collars, running shoes and even infants’ diapers. Presenters at the 2019 Mobile World Congress wireless show predict remote robotic surgery will be routine, and “mixed reality” — augmented and virtual realities — will substantially expand. This 5G world, we are told, will usher in a fourth industrial revolution, or what Germany has termed “Industry 4.0.”

Until recently, the extremely high frequency bands — up in the 24 GHz to 52 GHz range — also called millimeter waves, were not available for wireless transmission, but advances in technology have made it possible. Millimeter waves, which allow for colossal rivers of data to flow through them, are finicky: they tend to travel short distances—less than a hundred yards for typical 5G deployments— and at 5G power levels are impeded by walls, foliage and human skin.

Networks using these frequencies require denser radio deployments. 5G cells will have to be installed inside buildings and on utility poles on every city block. According to a report by wireless trade association CTIA, 5G installation in the United States will cost the wireless industry an estimated $275 billion in investments.

A totally connected world will be especially susceptible to cyberattacks, which Sue Halpern, a writer covering politics and technology for The New Yorker, writes is a “terrifying potential.” Recently, The Trump Administration eliminated a requirement that the technical specifications of 5G include cyber defense.

“Telecom companies already sell location data to marketers, and law enforcement has used similar data to track protesters. 5G will catalog exactly where someone has come from, where they are going, and what they are doing,” Halpern said.