Robust 5G cellphone service is one way Gov. Ned Lamont wants to attract more business and jobs to Connecticut, but some worry the governor’s push to adopt this cutting-edge technology is happening too fast without weighing a variety of concerns.
5G stands for “5th generation” of cellular phone networks. Just like 3G brought texting, and 4G brought video streaming, 5G promises another quantum leap - mega speed and bandwidth.
Heather Rodriguez uses her cellphone a lot.
“I do messenger with Facebook, I do email. I do music so I stream music, and I have my movie apps also like Netflix and Amazon.”
Given the option of dramatically faster service 5G backers are promising, and she’s said she’s all in.
“I’m a professor so just being able to communicate with students quicker, and being able to get back with them without the long pauses and waiting for 4G to kick in.”
Beyond faster phones, 5G supporters like AT&T Connecticut president John Emra said 5G’s added bandwidth will help support autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence on factory floors, remote robotic surgical procedures, and more.
“What does it really mean? I can tell you I’m not even sure. But what I do know? Is that as we build these networks and others build these networks they’re smart innovators who are going to use these networks to provide services that we can’t even dream of yet.”
As good as the promise of 5G might sound, people like John Elsesser have raised concerns.
“The digital divide is already growing wider and wider”, Elsesser said.
The chair of the state’s E-911 commission, and a longtime town manager, wrote a white paper on 5G, asking questions including whether 5G will be market driven and companies just get to put it where it’s easier and more profitable to provide.
“I think people are making the assumption that 5G is going to be uh available everywhere in the state. I’ve heard some presentations from some specific vendors that talk about due to price modeling that’s it’s really going to be more available in more dense areas and more affluent areas,” Elsesser explained.
Nick Simmons was appointed chairman of the governor’s 5G council. It has been coming up with guidelines for Connecticut’s 5G rollout, which involves 5G equipment installations on state, municipal, and private land. Simmons says the state will “urge”, but not require companies, to provide coverage across Connecticut.
NBC Connecticut Investigates asked if that is going to be strong enough incentive.
“There’s going to be a variety of tools that we use. There is, like I said. We have state owned property, you know, so if you want to be able to, if this is valuable to you, you need to work with us that you are also providing it in other areas that need it,” Simmons said.
5G service uses a higher frequency on the radio spectrum, and often needs cellular nodes lower to the ground, and often a few hundred feet apart to transmit its signal.
This has alarmed a group called Stop5GCT, which believes our state could be overrun with cell nodes.
“So we’re going to have all these multiple telecommunication companies wanting to get into the game of 5G, into our community, and when do we say stop? When do we say enough?” Stop5GCT member Paska Nayden told NBC Connecticut Investigates.
AT&T Connecticut alone stated it will need hundreds of cell nodes to provide 5G in Connecticut.
The governor’s 5G council has had concerns about “infrastructure density” and said its guidelines will again, not require, but give strong preference to, cell node sites where more than one 5G provider can install its equipment, known as co-location.
Simmons said, “You co-locate if possible, unless there’s very very strong reasons from an engineering standpoint that prevent you from doing it.”
AT&T said a majority of 5G service will come from larger, existing cell towers, and on those, Emra explained, carriers co-locate equipment a lot. But they may not be able to co-locate 5G cell nodes as often.
“We all have individual needs that are specific to the needs of our customers and the particular geography where we are. So for example, AT&T may need to build a node at a given street corner in downtown New Haven, to serve its customers. You know, T-Mobile might not need it because they may not have the same amount of customer demand at that corner that we know we have.”
The potential of having numerous cell nodes on utility poles may not just be unsightly. People have raised health concerns about 5G and radio frequency emissions. When asked, Simmons said he’s comfortable with the rollout from a health perspective.
“Yeah. I’m comfortable with the determination that the FCC, and the FDA and World Health Organization have made. But of course, health and safety have to be the number one concern for us.”
Emra added, “Don’t take my word for it, that 5G is safe, take the word for it of the established experts. So, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, you name it.”
“I will counter every one of those studies that he can present. There are many studies from major organizations saying it’s not safe. Let’s have this debate,” Navden said.
Stop5GCT and groups like it do not have a lot of time. The governor got a bill passed last year fast tracking the 5G rollout, and many carriers will have it well underway by year’s end. Stop5GCT said it will urge both state legislators and local leaders to slow this project down, hold more hearings, and delay or restrict carriers from getting the cell nodes they need on public right of ways.