In town halls and city council chambers across the country, local officials are facing the wrath of residents fearful of the next wave of wireless communications soon to sweep the nation.
They worry that the new technology — which will require hundreds of thousands of so-called small-cell antennas placed throughout neighborhoods — could cause adverse health effects because the antennas, located sometimes just a couple dozen feet from houses, will bathe their communities in round-the-clock radio frequencies.
Local governments don’t have any legal authority to block the deployment of the small cells based on health effects, and science on the subject is contradictory. But to soothe their constituents’ concerns, municipal officials are looking to Washington to do what it can: Update the federal government’s decades-old limit for safe exposure to radio waves so they can show residents they are following up-to-date safety guidelines.
“Why can’t we do a real health assessment here and find out what the real health risks are — to our children?” a resident in Montgomery County, Maryland, asked local officials more than a year ago at a public meeting held in that suburban community just north of Washington, D.C.
Angry mayors and city council members have been waiting for such an assessment for five years now, and still aren’t sure when they’ll get it, if ever, or why it’s taking so long. The Federal Communications Commission, which determines the limits for safe radio-frequency exposure, says it is still working on the exposure limit and declined to provide a date for when it expects to release an updated standard. But the federal health agencies the FCC relies on to set a new standard say little-to-no research has been done.
That isn’t much solace for people who fear the new technology. The wireless cells and its associated equipment will be closer to the public, as near as 10 to 20 feet, with cells attached to streetlights, bus-stop shelters and other structures. Small cells will be spaced about 100 to 1,000 feet apart, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cells erected nationwide.
The FCC has been collecting public comments on a new standard since 2013. It started the inquiry after the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, asked the commission in 2012 to update its standards using the most recent research.