The Keene City Council rolled the dice last week when it voted to hit the pause button on 5G cellphone service in the city. It did so hoping that the city’s exposure is more theoretical than actual.
5G is the next big thing in wireless technology, offering breathtakingly faster download and upload speeds that enhance cellphone service; it also may provide reliable broadband connectivity to homes and businesses in areas currently struggling without direct access to fiber-optic broadband. The catch — at least to some — is that the antennas necessary to supply 5G service emit shorter, higher-frequency radio frequency waves than transmitters for previous mobile technology generations. And 5G’s transmitters must be closer together to achieve full coverage, meaning more of them. To detractors, this presents a potential health risk, particularly if concentrated near residential areas and schools.
There’s another catch, however. The Federal Communications Commission is all in on 5G and has issued an order to speed up the nationwide transition to 5G. Included among its provisions is a mandated deadline for cities and town to process 5G applications — 60 days for attaching a 5G antenna to an existing structure and 90 days for new construction. Further, because federal law also says municipalities may not “effectively prohibit” service, local oversight of 5G rollout is essentially limited to tailoring application requirements within FCC-specified guidelines. Keene currently has no such requirements specifically addressing 5G wireless facilities, and it will be prevented from applying any to applications received prior to adopting them. To get in front of any 5G applications, then, city staff has been developing standards over the past few months.
Facing competing imperatives — slow down to address possible health concerns; speed up to anticipate the federal mandate — the council on March 5 opted to kick the can down the road, at least for the rest of this year. It authorized city staff to continue drafting an ordinance to create location and design standards for the small wireless facilities that can be used for 5G rollout. In a separate vote, though, it also directed the city manager not to accept applications for 5G service under such an ordinance — if the council eventually adopts one — until Jan. 2, 2021.
The rationale behind the temporary ban was to buy time to accommodate questions raised about the possible health risks of 5G technology by some members of the public and city councilors. They point to scientific studies which, while not definitive, at least give some pause. Indeed, concerns over the issue led the N.H. Legislature last year to create a commission to study the environmental and health effects of 5G. Its report is due in November, and the council seems to be counting on it to provide sufficient clarity by the time the temporary ban expires in January.
The council’s roll of the dice is a bet that 5G providers will overlook Keene for the rest of this year while the ban is in place, because the city now risks a lawsuit from any applicant rejected under the ban and would likely be prevented from imposing design and location standards retroactively. That risk is a calculated one, however, for the 5G rollout across the country has been focused on more populous cities and regions.
Even so, the council many not find its choices on 5G any easier when the ban expires in January. The state legislative commission’s report will surely be informative, but it would be surprising if it gives a definitive thumbs up or down to whether 5G presents any health risks, since 5G technology hasn’t been around long enough to expect clear answers on the effect of long-term exposure. Thus, even if the report leans toward not finding 5G to present health risks, its detractors will surely not be swayed and will continue to oppose the city’s accommodating 5G. And even if the commission reports there are meaningful health risks, the city will still face the federal mandate not to prohibit the technology.
Meantime, the council is right to direct to staff to push ahead with developing an ordinance. If it turns out the health concerns are real, though, the city may be left with no choice but to rely on state and federal authorities to put the brakes on a rollout in Keene.