By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
June 6, 2018

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The debate about the next generation of wireless networks, known as 5G, usually focuses on when the technology will be ready and whether the super fast service might create new business use cases. There’s a lot less attention on some of the challenges of building out the kind of infrastructure that will be needed for 5G. Aaron in for Adam this morning with my municipal government hat on, thinking there may be some bumps in the road ahead.

Over the past year, there have been two big controversies in the typical Boston suburban town where I live. One involved residents concerned about new high-voltage power lines that would run underground (to reduce weather related outages) past many homes and some schools. The other was a conflagration over a plan by the town to install several powerful radio transmitters and antennas to eliminate dead spots in the police department’s communications network. Both projects have been delayed due to the public outcry.

In both cases, the residents most serious concerns were over the potential health threats of electromagnetic transmissions, a subject I somewhat naïvely thought had been well settled years ago. But this being the Boston suburbs, some of the residents up in arms were top notch medical professionals with considerable facts in hand about the possible risks. For example, two large studies that came out earlier this year found that the kind of non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phone networks caused heightened cancer risks in laboratory animals. On the other hand, the National Cancer Institute says it has seen no increase in brain cancer in the decade or more since cell phone usage skyrocketed and the Food and Drug Administration still concludes that there is no connection to “adverse health outcomes.” On the other other hand, health officials in England said just last month that they have seen the feared jump in brain cancer rates.

That brings me back to 5G. Because the spectrum bands being used by carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile for 5G are much higher frequencies than those used for older networks, the signals don’t travel as far. That means the carriers will have to place tens of thousands of radio transmitters called small cells all over densely populated areas. And that could generate considerable pushback. The Center for Public Integrity, an award-winning, nonpartisan investigative journalism group, has cataloged some early battles that have already broken out between carriers and local residents and written about growing health concerns. The Federal Communications Commission is trying to clear the way for the carriers, creating a small cell advisory group to suggest ways for “removing state and local regulatory barriers.” The question for the industry is whether the public opposition will mobilize to slow things down.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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