As though Americans don't have enough to worry about right now, some people have recently been stoking fears about the supposedly harmful health effects of 5G — the new generation of wireless broadband networks. The New Republic recently ran an article with the understated headline "Is 5G Going to Kill Us All?" Celebrities, including actors Woody Harrelson and John Cusack, have suggested that 5G may somehow contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, vandals subscribing to 5G conspiracy theories have set fire to cellphone towers throughout Europe.
Conjectures about 5G's effect on human health are long on panic and short on science. Paradoxically, such fears are likely to exacerbate suffering during the COVID-19 crisis, because the dislocation caused by the coronavirus pandemic requires strong Internet connectivity to facilitate telework, remote learning, as well as staying in touch with friends and family. Investment in 5G is thus central to the United States' recovery, and it's important for Americans to know that wireless networks are safe.
For decades, the Federal Communications Commission (for which I serve as general counsel) has ensured that equipment that transmits information over radio waves — from station antennas to cell towers to mobile phones to laptops — is safe for consumer use. You are probably reading this on a device with an FCC stamp on the back, meaning that the device meets federal standards for radio frequency or "RF" emissions.
The FCC most recently reviewed and reaffirmed those standards, which are among the most stringent in the world, in an order issued late last year. It included findings from the Food and Drug Administration that "the weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems" and "the current safety limits for cell phones are acceptable for protecting the public health."
The FCC sets its RF emissions limits to reduce exposure to heat, or thermal energy, which can damage human tissue — think putting your hand in the microwave. The FCC's conservative standards for cellphones and similar devices include a large safety margin, with exposure limits many times below what scientific studies have shown could possibly cause adverse thermal reactions.
The FDA's website explains that prolonged exposure to emissions at higher ends of the electromagnetic spectrum (such as X-rays) can also cause tissue damage through ionized radiation. But cell phone and broadband transmissions occur at much lower, non-ionizing frequencies than X-rays. There is no substantiated evidence that equipment that emits radio waves at these lower frequencies and complies with FCC standards has any adverse health effects on people.
These findings, however, have not stopped plaintiffs' lawyers and activists from trying to capitalize on fear and misinformation surrounding RF emissions. In California, a proposed class action seeks to hold Apple liable for iPhones that the class claims exceed federal RF limits, despite the FCC certifying the devices as safe. The class bases its allegations on third-party tests whose results the FCC couldn't replicate. In a statement of interest, the FCC explains that allowing trial lawyers to substitute their own tests for federal procedures will lead to uncertainty and confusion. It will also result in increased litigation costs that will ultimately be passed on to consumers.
Local governments are also second-guessing federal safety standards. In a second case pending in the same California court, an association of wireless providers is challenging a so-called Right to Know ordinance adopted by the city of Berkeley, California. That ordinance requires cellphone retailers to post a prominent notice stating that if you wear your phone "in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra . . . you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation." This warning, which would give any consumer pause, ignores the FCC safety margin that ensures that placing approved devices against the body has no adverse health impact.
Such alarmism is not limited to Berkeley. As I learned during a recent roundtable discussion at the New York State Wireless Association, one of the chief impediments to extending wireless deployment in the New York City area is local decision-makers' fear of the health effects of 5G. In my home state of New Jersey, the Trenton city council has drafted an ordinance that would ban 5G outright in response to the recent hysteria. While federal law places limits on the abilities of towns and cities to prohibit wireless deployment, these localities can play an active role in either speeding or delaying the rollout of 5G services.
Bad local decisions could be catastrophic for our country as we continue to face historic challenges relating to the coronavirus pandemic. High-speed, high-capacity wireless networks will be indispensable tools for our social and economic recovery. Under Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has spent the past three years freeing up airwaves and cutting red tape to ensure that American networks are prepared for this crisis. But if we delay 5G deployment based on irrational fears and unproven theories, it will only hurt the American people as we plot our path forward.
Johnson Jr. is general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission. This piece was written for The Washington Post.