Eugene, Ore., Residents Question 5G, Citing Health Concerns

There is no 5G in the area just yet, but with telecommunications companies laying groundwork for it, the city is working on restrictive ordinances, in as much as they are allowed by the FCC.

by Christian Hill, The Register-Guard / May 6, 2019
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(TNS) — In late January, a small group of residents held a protest beneath the object of their collective scorn: a small cell antenna mounted on a utility pole at a busy intersection near Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene, Ore.

"We don't want it here. ... This technology is way, way, way stronger than all of our other technologies," protester Bekki Brucker told a local television reporter.

The technology is 5G, short for 5th Generation, the next iteration of cellular communication that promises blazing-fast speed and could, if you believe the prognosticators, redefine our relationship with the Internet.

There is no 5G service in the local area — it only just launched in a few major cities — and there's no timeline for when it will be available locally. Telecommunication companies are laying the groundwork for it, however, having installed more than a dozen small-cell antennas and associated equipment in Eugene so far. These locations now help provide 4G LTE service, the current iteration of the technology, to customers but could be part of a local 5G network in the future.

For a technology with an unknown arrival date, 5G already is casting a long shadow among residents and city leaders concerned about its potential effects on public health and how the technology can be regulated locally.

A month before the rally, Eugene city officials also took aim at 5G, or, more specifically, the Federal Communications Commission's effort to accelerate its rollout nationwide. Last fall, the FCC issued an order to stop what it termed "outlier" cities from inhibiting 5G's deployment with unreasonable fees, long delays and onerous land-use regulations. Eugene and many other cities and counties sued. The suit, since consolidated and pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, claims the agency's actions are an illegal overreach of the federal government's authority over local matters.

Then in April, after hearing concerns from about two dozen residents about the potential health impacts, the Eugene City Council approved a nonbinding resolution urging federal regulators to update studies examining any potential health effects from 5G. Around the same time, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio wrote a letter to the FCC asking it to provide more information to reassure the public about its safety.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, has classified cellular technology as "possibly carcinogenic," but a link between cancer and mobile phone use has not been definitively established. The research continues.

"I'll be the first to admit I like super-fast phone service as much as the next guy," said Councilor Mike Clark, who has requested a council discussion of the community ramifications of 5G. "If there's a chance that some of these folks are right and this could be more harmful than we understand, then it seems to me the wise thing to do is to study it a little bit more."

Moving Away From Towers

Mobile phones use radio waves to send and receive data or your voice — converted to and from an electrical signal — through a cellular network. Phone companies are increasingly moving from large towers to small cell antennas that can be installed on utility poles and street lights, known as collocation, to transmit and receive signals from mobile phones.

Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation — energy moving through space as a series of electric and magnetic waves — as are microwaves, visible light and X-rays.

The move to 5G requires a proliferation of the small antennas as the radio waves the technology uses are tiny, don't travel very far and are prone to interference.

In theory, a 5G network could transfer data at speeds up to 10 gigabits per second, significantly faster than the current technology, 4G LTE, which now offers average speeds of 30 megabits per second or more. There would be scant or no latency, the delay between when you make a command and it's executed with 5G.

The 5G technology has been described as a driving force behind the "Internet of Things," the concept of adding digital connectivity to physical and everyday objects. Examples include driverless cars and advances in health care and energy management. The FCC has hailed the potential of 5G to "unleash a new wave of entrepreneurship, innovation and economic opportunity for communities across the country."

Dr. Stephen Fickas, a computer science professor at the University of Oregon, said there appear to be better alternatives to 5G to realize the Internet of Things, but the cellular technology has definite benefits when it comes to driverless cars.

"I think their case is correct," he said, referring to the telecommunications companies behind 5G. "They've been doing this for a long time. Cybersecurity is going to be huge in this ... world because a bad player can do all kinds of nasty things if they get into the transportation system."

Both AT&T and Verizon, the nation's two largest wireless carriers, have launched 5G service in some major U.S. cities. Samsung is releasing later this month its first 5G-capable phone, costing at least $1,300.

Verizon said it will roll out 5G service in at least 30 cities by the end of the year; 22 of which it has named and most are major metropolitan areas with none being in the Pacific Northwest. It has no timeline for when it would bring the service to the local area.

Two companies, AT&T and Mobilitie, working on behalf of Sprint, have reached agreements with the city and EWEB to install small cell antennas on city-owned streetlights and utility-owned power poles. The public agencies require the companies to meet its safety, siting and location requirements before they agree to a lease.

With a lease in hand, the companies then must secure a permit from the city to install and operate the equipment in the public rights-of-way.

The city of Eugene said it's received 90 applications to install small cell antennas and associated equipment so far, with the first coming in July 2017. The city has issued 52 permits to date.

Most of the small cell antennas are slated to go on power poles. The utility has agreed to lease about 40 of its poles for collocation so far, and fifteen have been installed as of last week, EWEB reported.

More are on the way. Mobilitie said it will install by July eight antennas.

The city doesn't individually notify neighboring homeowners when it receives a permit application, but it has developed an online map that pinpoints the location where antennas have been permitted or are being considered.

Verizon said the range of its antennas are up to 1,000 feet; the company said it needs to install new antennas to deliver 5G service. A company spokeswoman declined to say how many antenna would need to be installed on a typical city block to provide adequate 5G coverage, saying it's "competitive information."

The AT&T spokesman said its equipment is "5G-ready," meaning it can be upgraded via software and allows the company to "offer nationwide 5G coverage more quickly."

Health Concerns

On April 19, a group held another rally outside South Eugene High School to protest what it called the "new 5G cell tower," different from the one near Roosevelt Middle School.

(Again, the antennas and equipment installed on publicly owned poles and streetlights are not currently receiving or transmitting 5G service.)

More than a week earlier, about two dozen residents testified before the Eugene City Council, voicing concerns about the potential health effects of 5G and calling on the city to impose a moratorium.

The speakers included members of Families for Safe Technology, which was vocal in its opposition to the Eugene Water & Electric Board's ongoing rollout of smart meters due to concerns over electromagnetic radiation. The group has the same concerns about the current and previous generations of cellular technology but allege 5G is even more concerning because it operates at a higher frequencies and requires a dense proliferation of antennas.

"You have the ability, the right, the authority, the moral and legal duty to deny permits to put up harmful 5G without any excuses," said Abraham Likwornik, a member of Families for Safe Technology. "It's time to implement the precautionary principle better safe than sorry."

Although unproven, they maintain regular exposure to low-level, non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation harms human health, including increasing the risk of cancer and lowering sperm counts and fertility rates. Other harm includes sleep disruption, headaches, nerve pain, dizziness and heart palpitations.

Ten years of studies by the National Toxicology Program, which is run by the federal health department, found that rats exposed to high levels of radio wave radiation — similar to those transmitted and received by earlier-generation cell service — developed cancerous heart tumors with some evidence of tumors in the brain and adrenal gland of exposed male rats.

But the researchers noted in releasing the results last year the rats' whole bodies were exposed to the radiation, which is not the case for human mobile phone users. In addition, the lowest exposure level for the rats was equal to the maximum local tissue exposure currently allowed for humans under federal standards, which they said rarely occurs with typical cellphone use. The highest exposure level in the studies was four times higher than the maximum level under federal standards.

The studies didn't investigate exposure to radio waves from Wi-Fi or 5G networks.

"5G is an emerging technology that hasn't really been defined yet. From what we currently understand, it likely differs dramatically from what we studied," Michael Wyde, a lead toxicologist on the studies, said in a news release.

Rep. DeFazio also sent a letter to the FCC seeking answers from the agency to ensure 5G is safe. He noted the federal government hasn't updated its guidelines for human exposure to radio-wave radiation in more than two decades.

"My constituents in southwest Oregon have expressed their concerns regarding possible health effects from increased (radio-wave radiation) exposure, particularly in light of upcoming 5G technology," he wrote in an April 15 letter. "They are not alone — Americans across the country are expressing similar worries about possible adverse health effects from this technology, and they are understandably demanding answers from the federal government."

The resolution approved by the Eugene City Council makes a similar request, urging the FCC to work with other federal agencies to update the studies on the potential health effects from radio-wave radiation in light of 5G's pending arrival.

Kathy Ging, an organizer for Families for Safe Technology, said the council action doesn't go far enough.

"It's like a feather," Ging said. "It doesn't have the force of law in any way."

Regulatory Fight Looms

The FCC has ruled city and county governments can't impose a moratorium on small-cell antennas as it would violate federal law. In addition, local governments can't regulate small-cell antennas based on environmental concerns as long as they comply with the FCC rules for radio-wave radiation exposure.

Asked if Verizon had any comment about residents' concerns of the potential effects of 5G, the spokeswoman only noted its equipment is required to comply with FCC safety standards.

The AT&T spokesman noted that radio-wave radiation to the public "from a typical small cell facility is hundreds of times below conservative FCC limits."

To speed the rollout of 5G, the FCC ruled last year that cities can't charge more than $500 in upfront costs, including permit fees, for small-cell antennas installed on utility poles and street lights and no more than $270 per year in lease costs per antenna.

The city charges flat lease rate of $200 a month for small-cell equipment, about nine times the rate outlined in the FCC order. The city uses the fees to pay for the day-to-day operation of the municipal government.

EWEB charges a $1,000 one-time application fee per site for small cell antennas and equipment, and a $1,800 annual lease fee for pole-top installations. The utility estimated the lease fees will eventually generate about $66,000 a year.

The FCC noted the law allows cities and counties to recharge "fair and reasonable compensation" for use of the public rights-of-way but that some local governments charge above that to maximum revenue.

The order also decreases the time cities have to review permit applications for small-cell antennas to 60 days from 90 days for equipment on utility poles and streetlights and 90 days from 150 days for new poles.

Finally, the order provided guidance about the cities' ability to regulate the aesthetics of a small-cell antennas so they don't stick out like a sore thumbs along public streets.

The FCC order doesn't bar these regulations so long as they are reasonable and objective, aren't unfairly burdensome and are published in advance. City staff is reviewing its regulations in light of the federal guidance.

In their lawsuit, Eugene and more than two dozen other cities allege the order is a step too far by the FCC into the regulatory affairs of local government.

"We think that they've overreached and that it's contrary to what the (1996 federal) telecommunications act says," Assistant City Attorney Hwa Go said.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement that the order is lawful and the resistance by cities will delay the benefits of 5G from reaching the American consumer.

"They would like to continue extracting as much money as possible in fees from the private sector and forcing companies to navigate a maze of regulatory hurdles in order to deploy wireless infrastructure," he said in a statement announcing the FCC order. "But these actions are not only unlawful, they're also short-sighted."

©2019 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.