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There has always been a level of public opposition to cellular technology, but the voices of dissent have been rising significantly since the introduction into the public lexicon of 5G, one of the biggest buzzwords of 2019.
“How would you feel if you knew that an untested technology is being deployed across America with no government oversight, no transparency, no public input, no regulations, and no long-term studies on health and environmental impacts?” reads a 2017 article published in a blog called The Foghorn Express. It’s titled: “The 5G Network: What You Don’t Know May Kill You.”
Even as these dire warnings seem to litter the internet, few people seem to know what 5G is for, how it works, and in particular, why it has become so controversial.
5G is a marketing term that just means that it’s the fifth-generation cellular network technology. The “5” doesn’t really measure anything — just that it came after the fourth generation, or 4G. The jump from 4G to 5G will be much bigger than the previous jump from 3G to 4G — and this is down to the difference in wavelength between 4G and 5G.
4G uses radio waves (which measure tens of centimeters in length), whereas 5G uses millimeter waves (which mostly vary from 1–10 mm in length). The shorter wavelength of 5G means it can carry data much faster than 4G, which promises significantly faster download and upload speeds (a movie that would take seven minutes to download on 4G would take just six seconds on 5G) and more stable connections. A report by OpenSignal, published in February 2019 reveals that “in the U.S., the best 4G download speeds were 1.9 times faster in the late hours of night — when networks are quieter and most users are offline — than during the day and evening leisure hours, when networks most need to offer a great experience for their users. India’s best 4G download speed was 3.9 times faster than the speed experienced at the slowest time of day.” 5G’s high-bandwidth, high-frequency spectrum bands will help to mitigate this congestion and support more simultaneous users.
Perhaps the most useful feature of 5G is its significantly reduced network latency — the time it takes to receive a response to the information sent. This is an absolute necessity for new technology such as self-driving cars, where even half a second delay in response time could result in catastrophe. Some tech companies are leveraging 5G to implement new features. A new communications technology called “cellular vehicle to everything” (C-V2X) will use 5G to enable cars to communicate wirelessly with one another and with other roadside equipment such as traffic signals to share useful information and improve functionality. This will make it easier to negotiate stop signs, or merge into lanes. According to Maxime Flament, the chief technology officer of the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), “C-V2X will unlock the full potential of self-driving technology by adding an additional sense.”
As a result of these features, 5G will have a huge role in powering the growing internet of things, which is expected to have over 75.44 billion connected devices installed worldwide by the year 2025. According to the Department of State on Twitter, “#5G will be up to 100x faster than 4G. 5G will transform our technology and medical care. It will enable exciting new features for self-driving cars and smarter agriculture, among other innovations.”
By the end of 2024, 5G coverage will reach around 45% of the world’s population and 1.9 billion people will have subscriptions to 5G.
Verizon was the world’s first company to launch a commercial 5G smartphone service back in April 2019. The launch began in Chicago and Minneapolis, with a more comprehensive launch expected in the new year. A report by Ericsson published in June 2019 predicts that by the end of 2024, 5G coverage will reach around 45% of the world’s population and that 1.9 billion people will have subscriptions to 5G.
China has been in fierce competition with countries all over the world — especially the United States — to become the leader of the tech sector.
On October 31 this year, Chinese state-owned carriers including China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom made their 5G data plans public. The launch had initially been scheduled to take place next year, but plans have since changed in order to get it done more quickly.
There has been an increasing sense of unease among countries in the West that China is on an unstoppable path to global technology dominance. On December 9, Reed Hundt, former federal communications commission chairman told CNBC that “catching up to China on 5G is a ‘national imperative’ for the U.S.” China has already built a huge number of antennas for 5G technology and by the beginning of November, China already had 5G commercial services available in 50 cities. In a statement, the Chinese government revealed that over 130,000 5G base stations will be activated by the end of 2019.
However, China has faced a number of setbacks on its way to the top of the technological hierarchy. In particular, the Huawei security scandal has put the company under increased scrutiny after it was accused of liaising with the Chinese authorities to spy on users. This resulted in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand blocking local firms from using Huawei to provide the technology for their 5G networks. The Chinese government, however, disagrees with the arguments made to block the firm, referring to them as “protectionism” and “discriminatory practices.”
Despite the proposed benefits, some people have made it clear that they are against the introduction of 5G. Protests against the technology have broken out in countries including Switzerland, England, and Canada for a few different reasons.
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), 5G could interfere with meteorological satellite observations and thereby undermine the accuracy of weather forecasts.
In November, the World Radiocommunication Conference made an agreement regarding the key parameters for future communication technologies, including 5G. A few days later, WMO posted a press release to express their concern about these new regulations, stating that “the race to release 5G technology threatens to squeeze out other radio-frequency dependent technologies, including the world’s critical national severe weather early warning systems,” and that the new rules “could lead to nearly 10 times more interfering out-of-band emissions than what WMO had recommended to allow.”
Over the long term, this could result in unwanted effects across a number of key impact areas, including aviation, shipping, and agricultural meteorology. More worryingly, it could interfere with warnings of extreme events and even reduce our ability to monitor climate change in the future.
While the shorter wavelengths of 5G means it can carry data a lot faster than 4G, it also means that it has a much shorter range. While 4G has a range of approximately 10 miles, 5G has a range of only about 1,000 feet.
To solve this problem, we will need to implement “small cells” — low radio frequency radio access points, which are mounted on utility poles and other low structures. This is not a new technology — small cells have been around for over a decade — but their prevalence is increasing to accommodate increasing data traffic levels.
4G only requires a few large cell phone towers, but 5G will require a much larger number of small cells. It’s likely to take time and could end up costing billions of dollars. There has also been significant push back from local communities who don’t want antennas littering their neighborhoods.
5G phones are more expensive than 4G phones, and many people simply don’t see the benefits as being worth the significant price hike.
Many 5G phones still have some kinks that need to be ironed out, such as overheating in warm weather due to their high power usage. It’s difficult to justify paying significantly more money for a phone that keeps shutting down because it’s too hot.
But 5G isn’t the only piece of new technology that has received bad feedback in its early days. The HTC ThunderBolt, the first 4G LTE phone released back in 2011, got its claim to fame when Steve Wozniak told the internet it was the worst gadget he’d ever actually paid for.
Cell phone radiation has long been a source of anxiety for many people. Now some are worried that 5G technology will expose us to an entirely new and different type of radiation which raises the question of whether 5G will prove dangerous to our health.
Perhaps the biggest cause of concern for many people is the potential link between 5G and cancer. For years, scientists have been carrying out studies in an attempt to find a link between cell phones and cancer. Some claim to have found some links (like the 2011 World Health Organization report that linked radiofrequency electromagnetic fields to a potential carcinogen responsible for causing brain cancer), but according to the National Cancer Institute, “most studies have found no association.” In fact, the most consistent health risk that recent studies (2015, 2017) have found associated with mobile phone use is distracted driving that often leads to vehicle accidents.
With regards to 5G specifically, the FCC has also stated that there aren’t currently any concerns and that it is no different from other technology such as 3G and 4G, in terms of adverse health risks. However, in September 2017, a group of scientists launched an appeal to “recommend a moratorium on the rollout of the fifth generation, 5G, for telecommunication until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry.” The pledge claims that “damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plants and animals.”
More recently in 2019, a report by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority that was based on studies between 2017 and 2018 concluded that “despite the lack of established mechanisms for affecting health with weak radio wave exposure, there is however need for more research covering the novel frequency domains used for 5G.”
For governments around the world, there seems to be a clear choice: continue with the proposed 5G rollout until more long-term studies have been carried out by independent scientists, or push back the release of 5G and risk falling even further behind and losing more power to China.
Despite the pushback against 5G, governments and companies are continuing to push forward with its release. If further research shows that changing our exposure limits is necessary, the government will have no choice but to adapt accordingly.