FCC chairman addresses 5G safety concerns in letters to lawmakers

Ajit Pai says he's confident that 5G networks are safe.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says lawmakers need not worry about 5G safety concerns. 

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is trying to quell fears among lawmakers that 5G radios are dangerous to health.

On Thursday, the chairman sent a series of letters to lawmakers in response to inquiries about health concerns related to 5G that been sent to him in the past couple of months.

In each of the letters he said that the FCC places a "high priority on the safety of wireless services and devices." He said the agency's guidelines for RF exposure are derived from guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the industry group the IEEE and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

"The FCC relies on the expertise of health and safety agencies and organizations with respect to appropriate levels of RF exposure," he said. "These institutions have extensive experience and knowledge in RF-related issues and have spent a considerable amount of time evaluating published scientific studies that can inform appropriate exposure limits."

The response comes as concerns about the safety of 5G wireless technology has been increasing among lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Three Congressmen in the past two months have sent letters to the agency expressing their concerns about potential negative health effects due to exposure to radio frequencies used in delivering 5G wireless service. Representatives Andy Kim, a Democrat from New Jersey,  Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, and Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Oregon, say their constituents are worried that 5G radios, which are being deployed atop street lights every few blocks in many communities, may have negative effects that are still unknown.

"Small cell towers are being installed in residential neighborhoods in close proximity to houses throughout my district," said Rep. Suozzi in his letter. "I have heard instances of these antennae being installed on light poles directly outside the window of a young child's bedroom. Rightly so, my constituents are worried that should this technology be proven hazardous in the future, the health of their families and value of their properties would be at serious risk."

5G, which refers to the fifth generation of cellular technology, is the next big thing in wireless technology and it's been hailed as the foundation for other big trends like self-driving cars and streaming virtual reality.

Unlike previous generations of wireless, 5G will require up to five times the amount of infrastructure as 3G or 4G deployments. The big promise of 5G -- a massive leap in speed -- requires the use of super high-frequency radio waves, called millimeter-wave spectrum, that are limited by range and obstructions like trees. The result is a network requiring radios on every city block, versus 4G gear that transmits signals over miles.

What this means is that there could be nearly 800,000 of these so-called small cells deployed in the US between 2018 and 2026 to provide 5G, according to a study commissioned by the wireless industry trade group CTIA. In a separate report, CTIA estimates that roughly 323,000 cell sites were in service at the end of 2017.

Rep. Kim said in his letter that the FCC noted that the agency has not updated its regulations regarding radiofrequency RF safety since 1996. He also pointed out that the current RF safety guidelines don't account for the higher frequencies that 5G service uses or the fact that so many more radios are needed to achieve 5G service coverage. He asked the FCC to answer a series of questions about what research has been conducted as it relates to the safety of 5G.

"Despite the close proximity to sensitive areas where these high-band cells will be installed, little research has been conducted to examine 5G safety," he said. He added that the FCC has admitted that its guidelines need to be reassessed with respect to the use of newer wireless technologies.

Rep. Defazio noted that the Government Accountability Office made a similar recommendation in 2012.

"It is unacceptable that six years later the FCC still has not conducted a reassessment of its 1996 guidelines," Defazio said in his letter.

In his letters, Pai noted that the FCC has had an open proceeding to address updating its guidelines since 2013. And he assured the lawmakers the agency is working through the "voluminous" record to see if anything needs to be changed or updated. But he did not address specific concerns brought up in the letters. He also offered to bring congressional staff into the FCC's testing facility in Columbia, Maryland so that they could "see and speak with our engineers and technicians as they operate the RF testing equipment."

Pai's response is consistent with comments he made to the press in April. When asked about the issue during a press conference in April, Pai acknowledged that the nature of 5G "will be very different" than  4G, since it relies on small cells. But he said that the radios operate at much lower power than traditional cell sites. He added that "from that perspective, I am confident that in consultation with the FDA, which is the lead on this issue, that the technology will be safe."