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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s 5G technology is expanding fast to create ‘a new ecosystem’ for wireless users

A compact 5G cell phone tower is incorporated into a light pole at the corner of Madison Street and Riverside Avenue on June 16.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

To date, the city of Spokane has at least 188 engineering permit records involving Avista-owned utility poles that have been equipped with Verizon 5G cell arrays, according to city officials.

Verizon launched its “5G Ultra Wideband” service throughout the Spokane area in late 2019. The fruits of that labor, and the latest advancement in cellular network technology can be seen in the nodes attached to the top of utility poles throughout the city.

At a base level, 5G is fifth-generation wireless technology. It’s an upgraded cellular network over its predecessor, 4G, offering faster speeds and greater reliability, said John Shovic, an electrical engineer in the University of Idaho’s computer science department.

“It really turns the wireless communication system into competition for things like cable modems and even low-speed fiber optic lines,” Shovic said. “It gives the consumers more options.”

5G uses higher frequency radio waves, meaning they travel shorter distances and can be easily absorbed by objects like buildings, leaves and even rain – requiring carriers like Verizon to rely on strategically placed cell arrays, also known as base stations, said Ting-Yen Shih, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UI.

“This is the reason Verizon and all these companies want to deploy all these base stations compared to the old technology,” he said.

In the Spokane area, Verizon has installed cell arrays downtown, as well as in the city’s Cliff-Cannon, Comstock, Hillyard, Northtown, Nevada Heights and West Central neighborhoods. Fixtures can be found near the Glover Mansion, Cowley Park, Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Comstock Park, and there are also locations in Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake. Further expansion is ongoing, said Heidi Flato, a Verizon spokesperson.

Other carriers with 5G coverage in the Spokane area include AT&T and T-Mobile, according to the companies’ coverage maps.

Washington state law requires Avista to make facilities available to telecommunications carriers to provide products and services to their common customers, said David Vowels, an Avista spokesperson.

Applications for 5G, Shih said, also include autonomous driving and the “internet of things,” a system of devices connected over the internet that can collect and transfer data without human interaction.

“This is more like a new ecosystem that will accommodate the old technology,” he said. “This 5G bandwidth will accommodate a 4G, 3G technology.”

Shovic calls concerns about the safety with the technology “another one of those conspiracy theories.”

With the electromagnetic spectrum, Shih said, there is ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation, such as x-rays or gamma rays, are capable of damaging DNA.

Radio frequency waves, like the ones used with cellular networks, are a form of the less powerful non-ionizing radiation. Other forms of non-ionizing radiation include visible light and microwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission has a limit on the level of human exposure to radio frequency emissions from mobile phones. According to the FCC, radio frequency emissions from antennas used for cellular transmissions are “thousands of times below safety limits,” therefore leaving “no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students.”

“Even at that high frequency and even with so many base stations, the power of this wave arriving at your skin at the level of this regulation, you are safe,” Shih said. He added, “5G provides a way we can share the (electromagnetic) spectrum in a smart way. In that case, we can accommodate more and more devices, and we can make this all possible.”