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PROVIDENCE — Light poles and traffic lights are getting cluttered with electronic equipment and it’s expected to get more crowded as new wireless communication networks spread across Rhode Island.

One of those systems, Fifth Generation — or 5G cell network — is quietly being pursued in cities and towns despite concerns about health risks, unsightly appearances, and scant regulatory oversight.

Gov. Gina Raimondo champions the 5G network, but details of wireless “densification” are guarded by telecom companies, while cities and towns have few options to review or get answers about the expected influx of systems, even as health worries mount.

With Raimondo’s backing, the General Assembly passed a bill (H5224) during a rare session in October 2017. The legislation fast-tracks rollouts of the 5G network by pre-empting local planning and zoning boards from reviewing and approving the systems. The new 5G networks enhance existing 4G networks and require the installation of higher-radiation transponders and antennas.

The controversial legislation was one of a handful of laws passed around the country pushed by communications companies to bypass local oversight of 5G installations. The legislation also outlaws municipalities from passing a moratorium on 5G systems and restricts the revenue municipalities can charge communications companies for the use of public property.

“This is completely outrageous that we have private industry using public property to make money for themselves and in the meantime exposing us all,” said Doug Wood, the associate director of Grassroots Environmental Education, the New York-based advocacy group fighting 5G deployment.

Skeptics of 5G say the networks are a profit grab by wireless companies at the expense of health, democratic principles, and the environment.

The 5G network relies on clusters of small but powerful antennas that send data via waves of radiation. The microwaves pass through walls and human bodies to reach cell phones and other Internet-connected devices. The radio waves intensify among other 5G users, penetrating people with numerous electromagnetic beams.

Further raising concerns is the recent news that thousands of satellites may soon be orbiting the planet raining 5G microwave signals to the networks of antennas being installed in communities across the country.

The telecom industry says 5G systems increase data capacity 100 fold and help build smart cities that make government and businesses more efficient and reduce existing Internet congestion.

“We need this technology to help economic development,” said Peter Bowman, vice president of external affairs for Verizon at a 2017 committee hearing at the State House.

Macky McCleary, administrator of the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC), endorsed the 5G legislation, saying it’s needed to build “smart-grid” electricity transmission technology.

“This is a high priority for us. Not the least of which is because of our work with National Grid. Connectivity is a big deal,” McCleary said at the March 21, 2017, hearing.

McCleary said DPUC received bids from companies across the country to work on the project.

Getting information about those contracts and other plans for 5G deployment has been a challenge, as state officials redirect questions. Raimondo’s office referred inquires to DPUC. DPUC suggested reaching out to the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns and individual municipalities. Most municipalities seemed unaware of the deployment efforts. Only Providence said it’s in negotiations with wireless companies about building 5G networks. One municipality said it received an order from the Rhode Island Department of Administration (DOA) to get in compliance with the state 5G law. The DOA couldn’t confirm the directive.

Verizon told ecoRI News that it has begun deploying 5G networks across the state but wouldn’t say where. A spokesman deferred questions to trade industry groups. None responded to our requests for comment.

Meanwhile, equipment that looks like 5G transmitters and antennas has been appearing in Providence, along state roads, and on the campus of the University of Rhode Island.

Health concerns

Unlike traditional cell towers that are often far from residential and urban areas, 5G networks install transponders as close as every 200 feet. Some require boxes the size of small refrigerators that are affixed to utility poles and traffic lights.

Research has shown health risks associated with 3G and 4G cell phones but there is very little public information about the health effects of higher frequency 5G. Scientists, however, have called for pausing the 5G rollout until more independent research is conducted.

A 2017 letter signed by more than 230 scientist around the world expresses serious concern about the “massively increasing exposure” from 5G wireless radiation. The letter cites several studies showing the health effects of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields (RE-EMF). One of the most cited is a 2015 study finding a link between electromagnetic fields in cell phones and brain and heart cancer in animals.

Potential risks of exposure to higher radio-frequency radiation include cancer, heart disorders, neurological and cognitive disorders, and the disruption of brain development in fetuses. The risk is worse for pregnant women, children, the elderly, individuals with implanted medical devices, and those with pre-existing health problems.

“The massive rollout of 5G transmitters on telephone poles near every home in Rhode Island, without adequate premarket product testing, is very alarming,” said Stephen Dahl, a concerned Rhode Island resident who is hosting a free screening of the documentary “Generation Zapped” on Feb. 21 at the Kingston Free Library. The film focuses on the health risks of radiation from wireless networks such as Wi-Fi, 5G cell phones, and electronic devices.

Dahl, a former educator and videographer, is particularly concerned about the flood of wireless radiation on students at schools and libraries.

Aesthetics

Neighborhood groups around the country worry about the look of clunky hardware. A Washington Post exposé and other articles highlight community push-back about aesthetic and health impacts caused by long-term exposure to cell emissions. Municipalities in western Massachusetts and other communities are also resisting these new cell systems.

National issue

The federal government has accelerated the 5G rollout. Last September, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nationalized the regulations on municipal governments, requiring them to approve 5G cell sites more quickly. Companies such as AT&T and Verizon can also use public utility poles and other rights of way while capping the money that cities and towns can charge for processing applications. In March 2018, the FCC eliminated environmental and historic reviews for cell and wireless towers and equipment.

These measures are facing several court challenges, including by the National Resources Defense Council and Native American tribal groups.

Local oversight

Despite Raimondo’s 5G law, there is no state oversight of network deployment. DPUC defers to cities and towns about plans. But permitting offices aren’t always willing to speak about it, nor are they aware of the issue.

Despite signs that 5G hardware is already going up in neighborhoods, Providence is in the process of developing a request for information for a 5G small-cell plan.

“Submissions will be reviewed and help guide implementation options,” said a city spokesperson.

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