by Jon Meltzer

College Park councilmembers, joined both virtually and in-person by city residents at a meeting on June 28, asked telecommunications contractors tough questions about installation of new 5G antennas around the city.

James Crane, a communications and public safety expert with the Columbia Telecommunications Corporation (CTC), led a presentation on the planned expansion of 5G antennas, also known as Small Wireless Facilities (SWFs). Shawn Thompson, vice president for analytics with CTC, assisted via Zoom. After running through a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation during the first half of the meeting, the CTC representatives took questions from councilmembers and residents.

A number of residents and councilmembers were dismayed to learn that a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule bans jurisdictions from blocking 5G SWF installations. According to Suellen Ferguson, attorney for the city, the 2018 FCC rule requires that “a state or local government must approve an eligible [SWF installation] request within 60 days.” She confirmed that the city can only discuss the exact location of proposed arrays with telecommunications enterprises, but not whether arrays can be installed at all.

The College Park City Council has passed at least one ordinance indicating location preferences. According to Crane, there is a “preference for locating these facilities in … commercial areas,” as opposed to residential areas, and that arrays are installed on existing structures such as light or telephone poles.

Ferguson said that the city has received its first qualifying application: Verizon has filed documents to install a 5G array at the intersection of Edgewood Road and Rhode Island Avenue. Councilmember Fazlul Kabir (District 1), recalled from a previous council meeting with Verizon representatives that the telecommunications giant planned to install eight antennas within the city’s municipal limits.

According to a table shared by CTC, there are over 800 currently proposed sites for telecommunications arrays, including both SWFs and macro arrays, across Prince George’s County. Verizon will be responsible for more than half of these installations, adding at least 398 SWFs and 15 larger installations in the coming months and years. T-Mobile and AT&T will also install new radio-frequency (RF) devices, though it is currently unclear how many of these will be in College Park proper. 

Residents at the meeting expressed concerns about health risks to those living and traveling in close proximity to the proposed SWFs. A 2020 article in the peer-reviewed medical journal Oncology Letters noted that “the evaluation of [RF] radiation health risks from 5G technology” had not been properly reviewed by unbiased researchers in the European Union. The authors were concerned that “the WHO [World Health Organization]  in May 2011 classified RF radiation in the frequency range of 30 kHz to 300 GHz to be a ‘possible’ human carcinogen,” a significant concern that was being largely ignored by telecommunications policymakers in multiple nations, possibly due to conflicts of interest.

CTC’s inability to fully respond to residents’ concerns increased tension at the meeting. Crane stated that CTC “cannot advise on health risks.” Thompson underscored that “the FCC has published limits on how much exposure people can [safely] get,” and that CTC makes sure “there’s no opportunity for people to have that [unsafe] experience.”

Residents voiced other concerns, as well. David Dorsch asked about the antennas’ propensity for interfering with aircraft communications signals; he also asked about how the SWF power sources would be backed up in the event of an outage. Mary Thompson, also a resident, wanted to know why her neighborhood would be the first to get a 5G SWF; city officials responded that the corresponding application was the first that was approved.

Councilmembers reported that residents were primarily expressing concerns about potential health risks related to 5G exposure. Denise Mitchell (District 4) said she received no fewer than 25 comments about this issue prior to the June meeting; Kabir said he had received dozens of similar comments over the past few months.

Verizon, T-Mobile and other carriers filed plans for county review; as of press time, that review had either not been completed or made public by the Prince George’s County Telecommunications Transmission Facility Coordinating Committee.