Part I | The hype about 5g

In the wake of the news that Verizon Wireless will begin installing a new 4G LTE cellular antenna on the rooftop of Napa Auto Parts and at the broadcast site atop Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, locals who call the islands home are postulating: are service providers paving the way for San Juan County’s great “tin-foiling?” Is the new, 5G cellular standard on its way to the islands? And how proactive can the county be about that forthcoming decision?

“Once a 4G antenna is installed it’s easy enough to switch that out for 5G,” said Regina Zwilling, a local wellness professional and advocate. “Let’s say for argument’s sake the health effects of 5G are questionable. There remain bigger questions surrounding what this technology represents and who we are. I think the question exceeds ‘what does this technology do to our bodies?’ It’s more: ‘what implication does this technology have on the social fabric of our society?’”

According to T-Mobile’s 5G coverage map, as of February 2020, Forks, Neah Bay and the areas bordering the Puget Sound expanding from Seattle up to just east of Conway are currently covered by their 5G network. Due to, in part, a partnership with Orcas Power and Light Cooperative/Rock Island, all of the San Juan Islands enjoy Bellevue-based TMobile’s 4G LTE network. Since 2010, 4G powered devices have changed the way mobile-users experience and interface with the internet — from social media networks like Instagram and Twitter, to video streaming services like YouTube and Netflix — 4G transformed the world into a “mobile-first” world. 5G, too, promises to be the key to the future, fostering new experiences with what’s termed “the internet of things.” The United States Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai says 5G will also “help other cutting edge applications like high definition telehealth [and] virtual reality.”

America’s two largest service providers — Verizon and AT&T — have not launched their 5G networks in Seattle yet, nor have Canada’s largest service providers launched 5G in Vancouver, BC. But 2020, they say, is a turning-point year. Both the United States and Canada are investing billions of dollars to purchase spectrum in auctions and deploy 5G infrastructure between 2020 and 2026.

This new cellular technology has generated a substantial amount of contention globally. It is quite complex. In order to connect to the new network technology, you will need a new phone with a 5G modem. And that’s just one example. 5G requires an estimated half-million new towers and “small-cell” sites on utility poles, lampposts and buildings to support extremely high frequency bands. In this article, we will take a mental swim through an array of acronyms that signify myriad elements of 5G architecture and interfaces. Part 1 will also provide some clarity on how radio frequencies, spectrum bands and millimeter wave technology work.

5G: Why does it matter?

Carriers have said 5G promises lightning-fast data speeds and the ability to power and stabilize new technologies like self-driving cars, communicating-drones and advanced augmented reality experiences. FCC Chairman Paj proves to be motivated by these prospects. The FCC drafts safety standards for radiofrequency exposure and regulates cable and wireless service providers. In the spring of 2019, Paj unveiled the aggressive 5G Fast Plan requiring cities and states to approve new 5G antennas within 60 or 90 days.

By the end of 2019, the majority of urban 5G consumers saw “no meaningful improvement to our cellular networks” in terms of data speed, reports New York Times lead technology writer Brian Chen. But carriers say the foundation is built and an ecosystem is beginning to form.

Correspondingly, already exploding mobile traffic is expected to grow five times by the end of 2024, according to telecommunications giant Ericsson. The argument goes: carriers will require more capacity to handle those loads. Ericsson projects economic opportunities stemming from 5G will present the United States with 2.2 million new jobs in six years. An additional 3 to 5 billion people who never had access to the internet will go online for the first time in 2020, reports Our World In Data, although these new cellular users won’t experience 5G for a very long time.

Other than zoning rules for antenna installations, there are currently no county or state regulations that apply to wireless networks. Mayors, governors and councilmembers across the country have little or no power under current rules to act on constituents’ wishes. According to County Councilmember Rick Hughes, San Juan County considers data and communications traffic as part of the transportation and construction infrastructure. Hughes shared that the county is supportive of businesses that drive things forward to provide access to data.

“If there’s a way to change our local economy that doesn’t cause incremental health hazards, let’s go for it,” Hughes said. “The greatest thing about the internet is it’s the universal wealth equalizer.”

How does it work?

Phone carriers have jumped to a new wireless standard roughly every decade. About 10 years ago, 4G, the fourth-generation network, arrived with significantly faster speeds and stronger reliability than 3G. About a decade before that, 3G arrived and was much faster and more robust than 2G in the 1990s.

The fifth generation network is more complicated. 5G operates within two frequency ranges on the electromagnetic spectrum that range from ultra high frequency to extremely high frequency. The first is the frequency range below 6 GHz, the same range currently used by existing 2G, 3G and 4G legacy systems. This year, cellular network carriers will broadly shift to this version of 5G, the main benefits being increased data speeds and reduced latency. For example, at present when you conduct a web search on your phone, the results usually won’t load immediately. 5G technology will shave this latency, or lag time, down considerably — typically to a fraction of the amount of time it takes to blink.

Public discussion has mainly centered around the second, new frequency range specifically dedicated to 5G: the range of about 24 GHz to 52 GHz. This is a frequency 10 times higher than any previous. The higher you go up in frequency, the more information you can transmit per second. It allows service providers to not only offer higher data speeds to their customers, but also offer higher data speed to more customers within a given area.

Typically, 3G and 4G systems are based on “macro” and “microcell” architectures. Macro cells cover distances of up to a few miles whereas microcells cover distances of up to a few hundred yards. In other words, with a relatively low number of cell towers, a network operator can cover a wide geographic area. This is because lower frequency radio waves that 3G and 4G systems operate in, for example, the 700 MHz spectrum OPALCO purchased in 2014, can pass through building walls enough for useful, indoor cellular reception.

While Mt. Constitution Sites’ data transmitting antennas serve as great data aggregates, 60 percent of the county remains “uncovered,” according to Hughes. In order to improve San Juan County 4G network performance, Verizon and T-Mobile are applying network towers to the islands — of note most recently the antenna on top of Napa Auto Parts. Currently, T-Mobile houses LTE wireless telecommunication technology, or cell sites, on almost 40 utility poles countywide.

According to SJC Information Technology Manager Tony Harrell, neither T-Mobile nor Rock Island have spoken to the county recently regarding the availabilty of 5G in the San Juan Islands.

“At one time Rock Island mentioned that it would eventually get here but no timeframe,” he said.

In 5G’s higher frequency range of 52 GHz, one “small cell” site can only provide a signal less than 100 yards away. Small cells operate at lower power. Because signals transmitted over higher frequencies are limited in range and can’t penetrate obstacles like walls, tree foilage, or even organs beneath superficial tissues of the human body, networks using these frequencies will require denser radio deployments. This presents a concern to critics who say even non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, of which 3G, 4G and 5G are part of, may have dangerous health implications. (In contrast to ionizing radiation used during a medical CAT scan or dentist x-ray, non-ionizing radiation does not directly affect cells.)

According to scientific researchers on the biological effects of electromagnetic radiation, there is a protective, or “shielding effect” of human skin. In theory, at higher, non-ionizing radio frequencies, the skin acts as a barrier, shielding the internal organs — including the brain — from exposure. Superficial layers of the human body block even higher frequencies of sunlight. Still, there remains much contention. It’s fiercely political, says local Electrical Engineer Andreas Wachter who lives on Orcas.

He says: it matters less the proximity you find yourself to an antenna site, and more the actual amount of electromagnetic radiation you’re exposed to.

“Just because you’re close to an antenna doesn’t mean you’re exposed to more electromagnetic radiation. It depends on how much power that antenna is emitting. Just because there are more antennas within a given area doesn’t really mean you’re exposed to more radiation. In fact it could be the opposite,” he said. “For instance, say you have only one single cell tower in the middle of Eastsound that is going to give cell service to all of town, that cell tower is going to have to use a lot more power to cover the area than if you were to put up several smaller towers to cover the same area. People living in close proximity to that single ‘big’ cell tower might be exposed to considerably higher levels of electromagnetic radiation than if they lived next to one of the smaller cell towers. So just because there are more cell towers doesn’t mean that people are exposed to more electromagnetic radiation.”

Dr. David Carpenter, who for decades has clashed with the science establishment on the health risks of radio waves says “the status quo is not acceptable” and wants federal and local governments to investigate it more closely.

Under Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has agressively freed up more high frequency spectrum than all mobile broadband providers combined. The FCC concluded 5G spectrum auctions this year in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz bands. Later this year, the FCC will auction even higher gigahertz bands. The FCC is also incentivizing investment in fiber networks. Similarly, OPALCO is committed to make fiber-optic improvements to their grid, what Zwilling calls the fastest and safest way to stay connected.

To read Part II: health implications, county response and local insights, pick up a copy of next week’s paper.