Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has signed a bill that could speed the introduction of faster wireless service known as 5G to the state. The industry promises that 5G would mean things like better cell phone connections and faster movie downloads.
But there are concerns that 5G, which stands for fifth generation, could bring health problems like cancer to local communities.
For WUWM's Beats Me series, we received a question about when the Milwaukee area will get 5G.
One answer appears to be sooner than some people want.
The 5G legislation moved quickly through the state legislature this spring, and Evers quietly signed the bill last week. After an event near Milwaukee, WUWM asked the governor about concerns that 5G is unsafe, and that the bill takes away the ability of local governments to require tougher controls on the faster wireless service.
"Any time we go down a new road with new technology, we have to be careful and watchful. If we need to address things in the future, we'd be glad to do it," Evers responded. "But we can't be the only state in the Midwest that's behind on 5G. It was an important piece to pass, but we'll be monitoring it."
The bill signing disappointed a Greendale-based citizens group that's been monitoring radiation from utility poles that also hold devices for slower wireless technology — 3G or 4G. Elaine Unger is the lead organizer of the group — Wisconsin for Safe Technology.
Unger recently aimed an EMF meter at a street light pole near 48th Street and Grange Avenue. She was measuring the strength of the electromagnetic field coming from several small enclosed metal boxes that were also on the pole — boxes that typically contain communications units. Unger picked up enough radiation to push the EMF reading into the red. And she says that's not good for public health.
"It tells me I want to get away from this exposure, and it says that long-term exposure to radiation in the red zone will eventually cause harm,” Unger says.
Unger’s group is part of a national coalition questioning 5G. Unger says a key way 5G offers faster wireless is that more poles have to be fitted with radios to draw in signal from large cell phone towers.
"Even as close as two-10 homes apart, inside our neighborhoods. That's how 5G technology works. The signal doesn't travel as far," Unger explained.
Unger acknowledges she is not a scientist. But she says many technical experts have joined the citizen groups in raising concerns about 5G.
One of the experts is Paul Heroux. He directs the occupational health program at McGill University in Montreal. He's studied the effects of electromagnetic radiation on the body for more than 30 years. He's particularly concerned about a 5G unit beaming a signal into homes.
"It will be strong enough to go through barriers that would impede communication. This is why in parts of the world that have accepted this, they have requested increasing the standards of exposure because the current standards, which are wrong, are insufficient to accommodate this type of radiation," Heroux said, speaking about the telecom industry.
Heroux says it would be much safer if the telecommunication companies would just put better wiring into homes, especially fiber-optic cables that can provide higher bandwidth.
But Melia Carter, with the communications giant Verizon, says more wires are not what the public wants.
"What we are seeing is that people are kind of cutting the cord in their homes, and they are looking for a mobile option. So, that's where the technology has developed from a mobile perspective," Carter said.
She says 5G is safe. She used the term RF or radio frequency, which is the range of frequencies that can be transmitted without wires.
"The 5G devices on the network operate at the same or lower RF levels as today's 4G networks. In many cases, we're just switching out radios, so you put in a faster, more state of the art technology,” Carter said.
She says Verizon is providing 5G in Chicago and Minneapolis. But she won't say when it's coming to Wisconsin. Another telecom giant, AT&T, says it's actively laying the foundation for a nationwide 5G network, and will keep us posted on the company's plans for Wisconsin.
Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is pressuring the Commerce Department to move more quickly on 5G. His office did not respond to our request for an interview.
Citizen critics of the technology say there's no rush, and are urging local governments to put whatever safety controls are possible on any 5G devices going up on utility poles.
Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.
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