As the telecommunications industry and federal agencies pave the way for the next advance in wireless technology, the world — Jackson included — is greeting it with mixed emotions.
The introduction of 5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks that will replace 4G, promises to usher society into a new phase in its wireless evolution. It will drastically improve service with faster data speeds and lay the foundation for driverless cars, virtual reality and the “internet of things,” a web of interconnected digital devices that could extend the features of smartphones to traditionally “dumb” objects, from toasters to mirrors.
In some ways 5G has had a rocky rollout. Hundreds of doctors and scientists around the world have raised health concerns in recent years, and dozens of American cities have brought lawsuits against the Federal Communications Commission for streamlining the installation of 5G equipment.
In those respects, Jackson is a microcosm. Facing an FCC ruling to reduce local control over “small cell facilities” — which form the backbone of future 5G networks — the Town Council last month voted to create guidelines for the fast-approaching technology.
The FCC will now allow the facilities, essentially miniature antennas, to be built in public rights-of-way, areas long off-limits in Jackson. They are typically incorporated into telephone and light poles.
Town staff are studying how other communities have tackled small cell facilities, and the council aims to approve regulations by April 15, roughly when the FCC order takes effect.
5G is the eventual goal for local providers, said Terri Nikole Baca of AT&T, but the antennas would serve a more immediate purpose: bolstering 4G networks, which are often strained in Jackson’s peak tourism season.
“These are really just relieving congestion on the networks,” Baca said, “and bringing more speed and efficiency to the residents of Jackson.”
AT&T plans to apply for 10 to 15 small cell facilities as soon as Jackson’s regulations are in place, though that number will likely rise over time. Because they are so much smaller than cell towers, the facilities must be densely concentrated. Each one will serve only a small area, perhaps the size of a town block.
Baca said AT&T is “committed to a balance” in which the town determines the look of the antennas and ensures they are located in the most sensible places within rights-of-way. Baca is confident both AT&T and the town will be satisfied with the outcome.
“We’re trying to improve your network in the least obtrusive way possible,” she said. “I think once the town of Jackson sees what these look like … they’re going to be really happy with the product.”
But that doesn’t ease the minds of some wireless safety advocates. The Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit founded to “provide basic research and education about environmental health hazards,” decries small cell facilities as a potential danger to humans and wildlife.
Devra Davis, the trust’s president, cites studies that show an increased risk of cancer and other diseases from exposure to the radiofrequency radiation emitted by cellphones, cell towers and small cell facilities. She’s especially skeptical of putting antennas so close to Jackson residents.
“We’ve got growing evidence,” she said, “and the question is how much evidence do we need before we take some basic cautionary steps.”
More than 200 scientists from 40 countries appealed to the United Nations in 2015, saying the evidence “strongly supports greater precautionary measures” to reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields. They cite not only the risk to humans, but also to animals and plants.
In 2017 the same scientists submitted a letter to the FCC calling on the agency to consider the potential impact of 5G on public health and safety.
On the other hand, plenty of studies have found little to no association between radiation from wireless technology and adverse effects on humans.
“There’s a weight of scientific evidence that shows there’s no known health risks,” Baca said.
In fact, she suggested the greater risk to public safety is inadequate service, which could block 911 calls in an emergency. She added that she thinks “concerns need to be heard,” and she would like to see a community conversation about the fear of 5G in Jackson.
Baca noted that the FCC sets allowable levels of radiation from cellphones and associated equipment to ensure public safety.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies radiofrequency radiation from wireless infrastructure as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” but many health organizations have absolved the technology of health risks.
Overall the research is inconsistent and incomplete, and critics argue that’s cause enough to put the brakes on 5G until scientists can investigate.
Those leading the 5G charge aren’t keen to wait, though. Besides pressure to meet the ever-increasing demand for higher levels of service and new technology, world leaders are in a race to dominate the 5G international market, and China is outpacing the U.S. Experts believe whoever comes out ahead will win the global upperhand for decades to come.
With all that in mind, Baca said, it seems likely that “small cells are here to stay.”