But as the U.S. and other countries race to be the first to 5G, scientists and activists around the world stand in stark opposition to the technology.
5G promises to support self-driving cars, remote medical surgery and smart cities, using current microwave frequencies as well as higher millimeter wave frequencies.
3G and 4G technologies use microwaves to transmit data to mobile devices, and the lower-frequency waves pass easily through trees and buildings, allowing the technology to function off cell towers built relatively far from each other.
The higher-frequency waves on which 5G depends do not easily travel through buildings, so the technology will require placing small cells — small transmission sites made up of thousands of tiny antennas — in close proximity to one another. The plan is to place those cells on existing infrastructure throughout cities and neighborhoods, such as on telephone poles and buildings.
Studies have found exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields increases risk of some types of heart and brain cancers, especially for children. However, the amount and duration of exposure that creates significant risk is still debated, and the FCC sets standards for exposure they claim ensure public safety.
One worry about 5G is that while individuals can control their exposure to radiation by limiting how often they use their mobile devices and taking precautions such as not placing mobile phones directly next to their beds at night, the number of small cell antennas that will be needed to facilitate 5G technology takes away that opportunity to limit exposure.
The proliferation, critics say, means adults and children will be exposed all the time, without their consent. Critics also fear the proliferation of those frequencies could disrupt the migration of certain wildlife species.
In the absence of definitive data on the human and environmental health impacts of 5G, scientists around the world are speaking up in favor of a moratorium on the technology until a study has been conducted by scientists and doctors not affiliated with the industries creating the technology.
Over 200 scientists from around the world signed an appeal to the European Commission asking for a moratorium in 2017. In a separate 2015 appeal, 244 electromagnetic field-scientists from 41 countries wrote to the United Nations asking UN officials to address their concerns about wireless technology, saying health risks exist at levels well below current safety standards.
A few counties and boards around the country have also voiced doubts about 5G, some going as far as passing regulations to limit where wireless telecommunications facilities can be built.
To fast-track construction and cash in on the potential economic advantage of beating out other countries in developing 5G, the FCC is limiting cities’ abilities to regulate 5G infrastructure.
New FCC regulations prevent cities from regulating where carriers can place wireless communication facilities on existing utility poles in public rights of way. The regulations also limit what cities can charge for wireless communication technology installed on existing infrastructure, among other things.