This is part one of a two-part series on 5G in Blaine County. Part one will look at security, regulations and city right of ways and part two will address health concerns relating to the implementation of 5G technology.
As of Dec. 2, 5G, or fifth-generation, communications networks are available in Blaine County, specifically Carey, Bellevue and Hailey, according to T-Mobile, the company that reports launching a nationwide 5G network that covers more than 200 million people and more than 1 million square miles.
In response, some locals have started their own network of concerned citizens arguing for “no 5G in 5B.”
During a two-hour informational session by the group at the Community Campus in Hailey on Wednesday night, one of its leaders, Michelle Pabarcius, said in an interview that it was formed less than two weeks ago when she and some other women were gathered together and began to talk about 5G.
“People are so unaware of it. It’s quite dire,” Pabarcius said.
The group of roughly 15 people who were in attendance Wednesday night shared a broad spectrum of concerns with the new technology, including those related to health, the environment and the economy. Working under the umbrella group Protect the Wood River Valley, which also advocated against construction of a second above-ground transmission line through the valley, the group is planning to begin a communitywide petition to take to city councils and county commissioners to ask for more research to be done on the possible effects of 5G before they permit antennas and cell towers throughout Blaine County.
“Immediate measures must be taken to protect humanity and the environment, in accordance with ethical imperatives and international agreements,” states a 5G informational page on Protect the Wood River Valley’s website.
According to a press release from AT&T, 5G is now available in 12 markets around the country, and the company intends to offer 5G nationwide in the first half of 2020. According to a press release from cellphone service company Verizon, 5G is currently offered in 23 cities nationwide, including Boise, and the company plans to announce more 5G areas before the end of the year. Sprint offers 5G in select areas of nine U.S. cities, but the company is in litigation to merge with T-Mobile, which currently states on its website that it offers 5G to 200 million Americans, including some in Blaine County.
According to Verizon, the difference between 4G and 5G will be increased bandwidth size and peak capacity and latency—the time that passes when information is sent from a device until it is received—allowing for faster download times and faster internet in high-density areas such as airports. According to its website, Verizon launched 5G on Sept. 26 in parts of Boise, including around landmark areas such as the state Capitol, St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center and Boise Town Square.
But faster service also means additional antennas and smaller cell towers (known as small cells) in closer proximity to users in order to operate at a higher level.
“At their core, small cells are wireless transmitters and receivers designed to provide network coverage to smaller areas,” Verizon states on its website. “So while tall, high-power ‘macro’ towers keep the network signal strong across large distances, small cells suit more densely developed environments like cities.”
According to a Feb. 5 article by the Idaho Statesman, one of those transmitters is on the roof of the Downtown Boise YMCA, and “[i]t’s unclear how many small-cell transmitters have been, and will be, installed in the Valley.”
In addition, telecommunications companies have been successful in lobbying state legislatures across the country to create lax legislation that allows them to install small cells in communities without notifying residents.
After efforts by a Verizon-hired lobbyist, according to the same Statesman article, Ada County commissioners adopted an ordinance in January allowing “telecom companies to bypass public hearings, which are required for new cell towers, and directly seek administrative approval of the small transmitters.”
Local permitting process
In Bellevue, Community Development Director Diane Shay said that in November, the city approved an application to “upgrade some of the equipment on the tower,” but the company did not give details of what the upgrades would be for. The one cell tower in Bellevue, on Tower Street, has equipment for providers Verizon and AT&T, according to Shay, and upgrades on that tower do not require a public hearing but are done through administrative approval.
In Hailey, Community Development Director Lisa Horowitz said new or modified wireless communication facilities and personal wireless service facilities are conditional uses and require a public hearing. Master development plans (which map out proposed service areas), renewal and a variety of smaller permits are approved administratively, she said.
The city of Carey did not respond to questions regarding 5G by press deadline Thursday.
As of January, the Federal Communications Commission began working under new guidance and adopted rules to streamline the wireless infrastructure to facilitate deployment of next-generation small cell wireless facilities, identifying specific fee levels that local communities can charge for these towers in local rights of way and limiting the amount of time cities have to approve permit applications from telecommunications companies.
Cities in states across the country, including in Wisconsin, California and Massachusetts, have reacted to those new regulations by passing ordinances that stipulate distances between small cells and residential neighborhoods, schools and churches and imposing certain height restrictions and visual requirements.
National security concerns
While the Protect the Wood River Valley group is generally focused on the potential health risks that 5G may pose, nationally there are also security-related concerns.
Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tom Cotton R-Ark., cited national security concerns in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to review the licenses of two Chinese companies that have been given the right to use networks in the U.S. since the early 2000s, according to a Sept. 15 article from The New York Times. The senators argued that the government-linked telecom operators could target American communications. In May, according to the same New York Times article, the FCC denied an application from China Mobile to operate in the U.S., stating that the carrier could “conduct activities that would seriously jeopardize the national security, law enforcement, and economic interests of the United States.”
In October, the Idaho National Laboratory announced the creation of a Wireless Security Institute to “lead and coordinate government, academic, and private industry research efforts fostering more secure and reliable 5G wireless technology,” according to a press release from INL.
“5G has the potential to drastically change how information is exchanged for communication and control using wireless networks,” the institute’s technical director, Arupjyoti Bhuyan, said in the release. “It will make autonomous vehicles a reality, it will enable a fleet of drones to communicate during public safety, and it will improve the speed of information exchange by at least 10 times.
“Before 5G is deployed nationwide, the technology must be trusted, and security is a critical component of trust.”