It is the dawn of the 5G era, a time where people are being promised faster internet access that will allow them live, work and play in a way never seen before.
Late last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, through the city’s transportation department, granted Master License Agreements to Verizon, AT&T and three other companies to install “small-cell” components across the city for the 5G networks in a plan laid out by transportation Director Jeff Marootian.
While city officials and the utility companies say the latest generation of the internet access and data is 100 times faster than 4G technology, citizens and groups at a recent hearing were hungry for the specifics of a proposal that calls for 3,000 small-cell towers to be installed.
Critics charge that the sheer number of poles needed for the project would mar some of the most historic sites in a city that already has 71,000 poles.
Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes said the newspaper decided to host the June 13 forum without any grant or funding because “this issue is important” and residents across the city, especially those East of the Anacostia River, need the information.
Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, was the keynote speaker and panelist for the event held at THEARC.
“The challenge today is the online vs. inline economy,” she said. “The train has left the station. Don’t push it away until you know what you are talking about.”
Ward 8 Council member Trayon White told the gathering “5G is a heavy topic, both positive and negative.”
“There are supposed to be 3,000 small-cell towers built and we are greatly concerned,” he said. “The building community already offered a disapproval resolution and we are concerned about radiation.”
Three other speakers, Clint Odom, Maurita Coley Flippin and Delano Squires, talked during the forum about the positive aspects of 5G.
“We want our people to just not be consumers but have a piece of the action,” said Flippin, president and CEO of the Multicultural Cultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council.
Flippin said, for example, the Greater Washington Urban League has created an apprenticeship program that will create 1,000 jobs.
But residents at the forum nevertheless had many questions that could not be answered, including how much more will consumers have to pay, whether 5G networks will compromise people’s personal information and whether additional lines being installed will further clutter District neighborhoods.
During a D.C. Council hearing on Nov. 19, the same questions were asked by lawmakers such as Mary Cheh, chair of the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.
“We have many questions” as a city, Chen said at the start of the seven-hour hearing.
D.C. Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that residents from the downtown communities also have “enormous concerns” about the installations and it is his understanding that residents in Ward 2 and Ward 6 would be affected most.
But Odom, National Urban League senior vice president of policy and advocacy and executive director of the NUL’s Washington bureau, told those in attendance at the THEARC forum, “What we can’t do is redline ourselves out of the discussion because we don’t understand it.”
Odom, a former adviser for the Federal Communications Commission, acknowledged that the National Urban League’s State of Black America report determined Russian hackers are playing a high-tech game of divide and conquer.
“They are fomenting dissent with fake identities where people are fighting each other to suppress the vote,” he said, adding that high technology is here and people of color need to be part of the conversation despite their concerns.
City officials have been told by the telecom companies they can use existing poles in some cases but new poles will also be needed. Barnes wanted to know about the infrastructure needed to install 5G and why Ward 3 didn’t have as many cell towers.
Lee responded by saying, “Topography is a real issue. Ward 3 already has towers and communities of color tend to be victimized.”
Cheh said the FCC has already mandated that the city come up with legislation and that, regardless of concern, 5G will be coming in the near future.
Thomas Walker and Eugene Riley waited patiently in line to ask questions. Walker, who is black, and Riley, who is white, both work in the Science and Technology at the University of Maryland College Park and said that they can’t wait for the 5G network.
“I think that 5G is very important because it is going to allow us to execute artificial intelligence,” Walker said.
Riley said that though there are many unanswered questions, “with the advancement of technology you have to be prepared to look for answers even if you don’t know the questions because everything is evolving over time.”