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Pushback against superfast 5G wireless spreads to at least 7 Pacific Northwest cities

Activists are asking city or county governments of at least seven Pacific Northwest communities to defy the federal government. They want to stop the deployment of next-generation 5G cellular service.But the Federal Communications Commission and Trump administration have made the speedy rollout of  faster wireless networks a national priority. City officials find themselves pulled in multiple directions with their options becoming more limited by federal preemption with each passing season.

The cross-currents were on display at the most recent public forum — open mic night, basically — of the Eugene City Council. The public comments there could have just as well been heard at council or commission chambers from Bellingham, Port Angeles, Tacoma and Gig Harbor in Washington, to Portland, Corvallis and Ashlandin Oregon.

"I want to say first the 5G situation is a nightmare and an emergency," said Eugene resident Sabrina Siegel when her name was called Tuesday. "You are really dragging your feet on it."

"It is foolish and irresponsible to allow the rollout of 5G with no definite evidence of the safety of this technology," Philip Anderson, another Eugene resident, told the council members.

"The members of the City Council would have complete authority to pass a moratorium halting the further placement of 5G small cells throughout Eugene," resident Becky Bruckner asserted, citing "anti-commandeering doctrine."

Siegel, Anderson, Bruckner and others objected to the antennas going in atop power poles and street lights about every six blocks in Eugene. Wireless company contractors are hard at work in other Northwest cities too, in preparation for 5G service to become operational next year.

Citizen activists called on Eugene City Council members to enact a moratorium on further 5G antenna installs during a May 28 public forum.
Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
Citizen activists called on Eugene City Council members to enact a moratorium on further 5G antenna installs during a May 28 public forum.

Council members said federal law doesn't allow for the permitting moratorium requested by the 5G opponents.

The millimeter wave frequencies used for 5G carry way more data than current generation cell service, but the radio waves don't travel as far. So, wireless carriers need to deploy thousands more of these new, small cell transmitter antennas.

The objectors raise a myriad of health concerns to what one local group dubbed as "electrosmog."

"I've changed my opinion on this," Joshua Korn, an alternative medicine online merchant, testified facetiously in Eugene. "Now I fully support 5G because I want more cancer, more disrupted sleep, more adrenal problems, more reproductive problems, more birth defects, more compromised immune systems."

The FCC and wireless carriers say the health fears are unfounded. An industry websitesaid the typical person's exposure to electromagnetic energy is far below levels that could pose a risk and, likewise, the relatively low transmitter power will be well below thresholds for concern.

"Typical exposure to 5G infrastructure — such as small cells attached to phone poles or the sides of buildings — is comparable to Bluetooth devices and baby monitors," the trade association CTIA said.

Health concerns have been around as long as cellphones without any observed increase in human cancer rates that can be directly linked. Some of the opposition to 5G is being peddled by conspiracy theorists, or even Russian propagandists bent on sowing division in America, according to a New York Times report.

The higher data speeds offered by 5G technology could be a building block for industries from mobile telemedicine to autonomous vehicles and "smart" cities.

Detractors, such as the Eugene citizens group Families for Safe Technology, suggested a better alternative would be to run fiber optic lines door to door.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said 5G holds great promise to transform the economy, as long as government doesn't create roadblocks or delays.

"We were at risk of ceding U.S. leadership in 5G — and the half a trillion dollars it could add to our economy — to our global competitors," Carr said in testimony to Congress in mid-May.

Carr described how the FCC now requires local governments to expeditiously process permits for 5G/small cell transmitters and limits the fees they can charge.

"There's much more to do, but we're heading in the right direction," Carr said. "The FCC's policies are working."

However, dozens of cities including Eugene, Portland, Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Gig Harbor, Seattle and its Eastside suburbs have sued the FCC over the drive to accelerate 5G deployment. The cities object to what they call a federal power grab. The legal cases have been consolidated for argument at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later this year.

Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said she appreciates the concerns her constituents expressed about possible health impacts from the new wireless technology.

"Where our citizens are saying, 'Slow down,' our federal government is saying, 'No, no, no, hurry up. We need to install this,'" Vinis said. "So you know, there's not a clear path."

"Given the fact that we are all so attached to our cellphones, it is very hard to say as a community that we are not interested in this technology because it has changed the way we live," Vinis said in an interview with public radio. "You will find that many people in this community are eager for this to happen. They are eager for the next great phase. We are not of one mind in this community that this is a good thing."

Local politicians caught in the middle — such as Vinis and U.S. Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) — said they wished there were credible, independent studies of the possible health impacts of the new wireless technology.

In any case, Vinis stressed the 5G antennas in her town are not operational. In fact, 5G service is not available to consumers anywhere in the Pacific Northwest yet.

Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
The backpack-sized cylinder near the top of this power pole in Eugene is a typical 5G small cell transmitter.

AT&T and Verizon have activated 5G service in a number of Midwest cities and in portions of California's biggest metropoles. All of the major carriers are building their own networks.

To take advantage of 5G speeds, consumers will need a 5G-enabled device and a 5G data plan. A limited selection of 5G-compatible devices are just now coming to market. The four big U.S. wireless carriers are racing to deliver nationwide 5G sometime in 2020.

"Regarding the launch of 5G, T-Mobile will launch 5G when compatible smartphones are available and ready for our customers," a spokesperson for the Bellevue, Washington-based carrier said in an email Thursday. "We don’t have specific timing at this stage but we do plan to have 5G nationwide in 2020."

This story has been updated.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.