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Meteorologists fear 5G network could take forecasting back to the 1980s

The 2019 hurricane season officially starts tomorrow. Government forecasters predict nine to 15 named storms. Two to four could become major hurricanes. That's a category three or higher.

But the ability to predict those monster storms may be threatened by the next generation of cell phones. On one side of the debate, scientists worry that future 5G networks will hurt satellite data they rely on. On the other side, federal regulators and cell phone companies are racing to deploy 5G technology, which will deliver information up to 100 times faster than today's mobile networks.

"This is a huge concern because we fear that advances in weather forecasting are at risk," Marshall Shepherd, Director of the University of Georgia's Atmospheric Sciences Program, said.

Meteorologists are concerned because some of the frequencies the Federal Communications Commission plans to use for 5G are located next to the only frequency where weather satellites can detect water vapor, a critical component for accurate forecasting. They worry the new 5G transmission will interfere with their weather data collection, making it less accurate.

"The data is essential," Shepherd said. "90% of data going into forecast models these days comes from weather satellites. If you remove a good portion of that satellite data, you're crippling our ability to make accurate weather forecasts."

That could mean less time to prepare for major storms.

"If 5G were in place during Hurricane Sandy, and we had the interference that many of us expect, we might not have seen nine days out that the storm was going to make a left," Shepherd said. "We might have only known three days out that the storm was going to make a hard left into New York and New Jersey."

The FCC declined an on-camera interview, but a group representing the wireless industry calls the meteorologists' concerns an "absurd claim with no science." They say the weather sensor currently deployed is "much less susceptible to interference" than meteorologists claim.

Shepherd said he wants to take more time to look into the issue.

"I'm certainly in support of 5G and advanced telecommunications," Shepherd said. "But let's have a conversation to make sure we're not setting weather forecasts back several decades."

There is still time for a compromise before networks roll out 5G later this year.

"We don't want to move backward, we want to move forward with our weather prediction capabilities because lives, property and even our national security depend on it," Shepherd said.

NOAA says accurate weather data will provide the U.S. economy with $13 billion, but the wireless industry says 5G will add $274 billion.

Meteorologists say losing some of this critical information could take us back to the 1980s in terms of forecasting. 

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