Is 5G Safe and Secure? Deployment Takes Hits, But Rolls On

By Jeff Schervone

The race for 5G is a National Priority. Fast 5G is the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) plan for rapid deployment of infrastructure for superfast, next-generation broadband wireless. The backbone of the deployment involves widespread placement small wireless facility (SWF) nodes onto utility poles and other structures located in local public rights-of-way (ROW). Commercial U.S. wireless telecommunication giants (i.e. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile/Sprint) are taking the lead to build out SWF infrastructure in municipalities across the country armed with FCC exemptions from key local authority regulation of SWFs in local ROWs.

For about a year now, deployment of SWFs has been advancing in most major U.S. cities and in a number of smaller towns, boroughs and hamlets. Among other issues, questions over safety and security slow the pace of SWF deployments, but not the inevitability of 5G. Here are some recent developments.

Is it safe?

Too soon to tell. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently reviewed certain FCC Rules regulating local authority actions governing the deployment of SWFs onto utility poles and structures in local ROWs on federal and tribal lands. In its ruling, the Court upheld part of the Rules regarding shot clocks – the time a local authority has to review and process permit applications. But the Court struck an FCC Rule that would exempt SWFs from environmental and historical review. The Court rejected the FCC’s public interest assertion that SWFs nodes “would pose little to no cognizable religious, cultural, or environmental risk, particularly given the vast number of proposed deployments.”

The ruling adds to a chorus of pushback on health and safety concerns in Congress and at almost every town hall and council meeting where the 5G deployment issue comes up. To date, neither the FCC or SWF equipment manufacturers have come forward with sufficient evidence to allay the Court and growing public concern.

Is it secure?

Working on it. Another area of pushback against Fast 5G is security. Alarm bells are ringing across government about Huawei and China-related gear in the U.S. 5G supply chain. A May 15, 2019 Executive Order calls for 5G equipment to redirect telecommunication supply chains away from China and others. The FCC, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Commerce and other stakeholders are preparing guidance for supply chain security. Players in 5G infrastructure gear, Ericsson and Nokia, estimate significant delay and costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars as result of redrawing their supply chain away operations in China, but reportedly are already taking steps to mitigate risks of exposure to U.S. sanctions and tariffs. Other concerns involve equipment and associated 5G gear already deployed and in the pipeline.

Are we there yet?

Soon. According to a 2018 report from the CTIA, the number of deployed small cells is predicted to increase from 86,000 in 2018 to more than 800,000 by 2026.  AT&T has started its Mobile 5G roll out with 20 cities in the United States. Verizon announced it will release its 5G Ultra Wideband network in as many as 30 cities by the end of 2019. T-Mobile and Sprint announced 5G is live in 10 cities.

So far, twenty-eight states have passed laws for uniform regulation specific to small wireless facility deployment. Dozens and dozens of municipalities and local authorities have adopted ordinances and procedures to deal with floods of new ROW permit applications from wireless providers building out SWF infrastructure.

To glimpse into the future, the Orlando, FL the planning department has projected carriers will need about 20,000 nodes to bring about 60% coverage, with the most needed to bring strong coverage to dense downtown. Emphasis on 20,000 nodes.

While the deployment of 5G SWF infrastructure faces questions over safety and security, the race for 5G rolls on.

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