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5G and the FCC: 10 Reasons Why You Should Care via NRDC

June 21, 2019 Sharon Buccino

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2. Wireless communication touches every aspect of life. Smart phones are used by billions of people across the globe. As volume of data increases and delay decreases, wireless service is expanding beyond person-to-person communication. The possibility of the “Internet of Things” combined with Artificial Intelligence will impact every aspect of human life including transportation, education and health care.

3. The next generation of wireless technology—5G—is dramatically different from previous versions. Telecommunication is possible through use of the electromagnetic spectrum.  5G will enable more data to be carried more quickly, but its signal does not travel as far so a denser network of cells and other facilities is needed to deploy it.

5G promises to deliver dramatically more information at faster speeds enabling activities like driverless cars and remote surgery.  The new technologies require the signal to be repeated more often – prompting companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint to construct new towers and other infrastructure in communities across the country.  Unfortunately, many parts of the country still do not have access to basic broadband services.

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6. In March 2018, the FCC eliminated environmental and historical review for siting certain cell towers and other wireless facilities (FCC Order 18-30). Despite the license needed to provide wireless services, the FCC determined that there was no federal role in the construction of facilities needed to provide these services. In addition to NRDC, 19 tribes have challenged the FCC’s action along with the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held oral argument in the case on March 15, 2019.  Briefs from the case can be found here and you can listen to the oral argument here.  (18-1135)

10. While the FCC has limited the review by others, the Commission at the same time has refused to update its own health and environmental guidelines. The Commission’s guidelines date from the 1990’s. In 2012, the General Accountability Office found that the existing guidelines may not reflect current knowledge and recommended that the FCC formally reassess its guidelines. The FCC’s guidelines address only one aspect of potential harm from electromagnetic radiation—heat. The current guidelines do not address other ways in which exposure to increasing electromagnetic radiation from wireless communications can harm human health, as well as the natural systems around us on which all life depends. 

The U.S. National Toxicology Program conducted rodent studies to help clarify the potential health hazards of radio frequency radiation (RFR). According to my NRDC colleague, Dr. Jennifer Sass, the results (which have been subjected to expert peer review and public comment) show that long-term high exposures to RFR used by 2G and 3G cell phones are associated with an elevated risk of cancer, particularly in heart and brain cells (NTP 2018). This is consistent with the previous hazard assessment of the World Health Organization’s cancer experts, which concluded that there was a possible link (Group 2B) to brain cancer in people with RFR exposures (IARC 2011). Both government agencies warn that the public should take pragmatic steps to reduce exposures (IARC Director, May 2011; NTP Fact Sheet, Nov 2018).

Montgomery County, Maryland has sued the FCC for failing to update its health and environmental guidelines.  This case is consolidated in the Ninth Circuit with other challenges to Order 18-133 as discussed above.  (19-70146)

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