A bill designed to boost broadband internet in Vermont has raised concerns that it will also speed the expansion of allegedly hazardous wireless technology.
Opponents argue that the next generation of 5G cell phone service will expose people to much more radio frequency radiation emanating from hundreds of sites. Lawmakers say they’ve heard the complaints. They plan to add more state review to the siting process for 5G expansion.
Like traditional cell phone signals, 5G technology uses radio waves to beam information — voice or data — from cell transmitters to phones and routers.
5G allows more data to be sent at higher speeds, but — since the waves don’t travel through buildings and trees very well — the systems require many more cell sites to work.
That’s a problem for those who say we’re already awash in an invisible sea of radio frequency radiation from our wireless routers at home and work, and the cell towers along our roads and in our neighborhoods.
“People are really afraid of this 5G network, and it’s not just in Vermont,” said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
Smith said the increased exposure from 5G carries health risks. She said many governments — from European countries to the New Hampshire legislature — are considering delaying 5G expansion until more research is done.
“There are plenty of places that are saying: ‘Wait a minute, we can’t go deploying something that has never been put out in the public before and that the industry admits haven’t done health studies about. This is crazy,’” she said.
The cell industry compares the exposure from 5G to what you get from baby monitors or Bluetooth devices, and says the radio waves have no health impacts.
The broadband bill does not specifically promote 5G technology. But Smith and other opponents argue the bill will have that effect, because it streamlines the process to put equipment on utility poles that is needed for 5G.
The concerns have found an audience in the State House.
“There seems to be a thought that in making it easier to string cable to people’s homes, particularly fiber, that we are allowing a setup for 5G,” said Sen. Ann Cummings, who chairs the Finance Committee.
Cummings said 5G opponents turned out in force after the broadband bill passed the House and was assigned to her committee. She said the committee plans to amend the bill to require more public review of 5G installations.
“The number of phone calls and the concern have kind of slowed the process down,” she said. “I think what we’re planning on doing is just saying right now that anything that would have to do with 5G, any kind of a cell system, has to go through either Act 250 or have a 248 hearing.”
Under the Act 250 land use law, local commissions review projects to make sure they meet certain environmental criteria. Section 248 is a separate process for siting utility infrastructure that is overseen by the Public Utility Commission.
Cummings said cell companies plan to build 5G networks in urban areas. She said that sparsely populated places like Vermont — which is not yet fully covered by regular cell service — are a low priority.
“It just technologically won’t work in smaller, more rural areas, so it’s not coming,” she said.
But Annette Smith has culled through numerous applications for cell sites approved or pending at the Public Utility Commission. She said some mention their possible future use for 5G.
“What’s come clear really just in the last week is that cellular antennas are already being attached to utility poles in Vermont and that there is no public process around it,” she said.
Cummings said her committee plans to vote out the broadband bill this week.