5G: New horizons, new worries

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Chances are you’ve heard a lot of ads like these from Verizon and T-Mobile.

"At Verizon, we’re building the most powerful 5G experience for America."

"Everybody is going to get the chance to see what 5G can do," the T-Mobile spot said.

But do you know what 5G can do?

Critics claim it will cripple satellites and leave rural America behind. Promoters say it will transform daily life for most Americans.

"I see it as big as the internet," Dr. Ozlem Kilic said.

"There are big risks here," Andrew Freedman said.

5G is simply the fifth generation of wireless networks.

"An increase in the number has been typically implying that things will get better," 5G expert Dr. Ozlem Kilic said.

In 2020, most cellphones run on 3G or 4G.

"It will be transformative," Dr. Kilic said.

Dr. Kilic is an associate dean at the University of Tennessee's College of Engineering. She's been part of teams that built satellite and radar parts and is an expert on the topic of 5G.

The promise of this next phase of wireless: speed.

"Everything will be fast."

Take movie downloads. A decade ago they took a full day to finish. UT's engineering professor Dr. Ali Fathy says soon they'll be on your phone in seconds.

"There's no limit," Dr. Fathy said.

He's working on 5G projects for the military. For civilians, though? Self-driving car networks and advanced telemedicine are the next steps.

"Things are going to talk to each other," Dr. Fathy said.

They'll talk to each other, but only near line-of-sight distances. Because of 5G's wavelength, there will need to be a lot more cell phone towers than we had with 3G or 4G. They'll be much smaller, many attached to power poles or placed on buildings.

"Now you can have portable towers."

5G waves can't travel far and can be blocked by mountains. That has some senators like Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn concerned about rural areas.

"Closing the digital divide, and making certain that rural America has access to the technologies that are available in urban areas," Senator Blackburn said.

T-Mobile's commercial focusing on rural areas offers a different perspective.

"A major difference in rural areas. The coverage is going to dramatically increase."

Senator Blackburn is on the committee regulating telecom and 5G. She tells us she's written to the FCC multiple times on 5G issues.

"Going to be as revolutionary as going from analog to digital," Senator Blackburn said.

"Because the major market will be in those densely populated areas," Dr. Kilic said.

Dr. Kilic is excited but cautious about those higher frequencies.

"The real excitement is above the 24 gigahertz," Dr. Kilic said.

But one of our most vital weather tools operates next door at 23.8 gigahertz. And that could create some big interference. Acting NOAA administrator Dr. Neil Jacobs says that may be a big problem.

"This would degrade the forecast skill by up to 30 percent," Dr. Jacobs said.

Because of the so-called water vapor channel. Dr. Jacobs says that interference could take us back to weather accuracy levels from the early 1980s.

"Water vapor can only be sensed at that particular frequency. So the scientists are saying this is kind of inflexible," Andrew Freedman said. "And the 5G companies want to use the frequencies that they want to use."

Andrew Freedman is a deputy weather editor for the Washington Post. He's heard dire warnings from Congressional testimony about how bad our forecasts could get.

"Weather forecasts have gotten continuously more accurate over time," Freedman said.

Freedman has seen the battle for that frequency: on one side there's NOAA, the Navy, and NASA. On the other, the FCC and telecom companies.

The FCC denied repeated requests for an interview but a telecom lobbying executive says, quote:

"It's an absurd claim with no science behind it," Brad Gillen said. He's the Executive Vice President of CTIA, a lobbying group for the wireless industry.

"The Commerce Department is misleading Congress and the press."

In a memo to Congress, a Naval expert says this may impact Navy forecasts, which could:

"Result(ing) in increased risk in Safety of Flight and Safety of Navigation."

Senator Blackburn told WVLT:

"We continue to work, not only with NASA, but with the Department of Defense."

For cell phone users wanting to use 5G it means buying new phones that can use the network.

"Just to see it, is 400 times faster than the blink of an eye," Dr. Fathy said.

5G: new horizons, new worries:

"There are some fears, some concerns about 5G," Dr. Fathy said.

Even though 5G is years away from full coverage some are troubled by health concerns.

Dr. Fathy says the University of Tennessee is planning on more research. That research will focus on radiation emitted by 5G towers and 5G phones.

Initial 5G phone reviews mention how fast the network is, but also how hot those same phones get from running at top speed.

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