You may have noticed the recent spate of social media posts and articles expounding the various hazards of 5G, as though it were some tangible bogeyman to be avoided at all costs. Yet this is a disingenuous simplification of the situation. Disinformation and conspiracy theories abound, much of it appearing to be from Russian sources, allegedly because they don’t have access to the technology yet. Chinese company Huawei, who manufacture essential 5G backbone infrastructure, has faced allegations of installing ‘back door’ surveillance channels for the Chinese government into their equipment and are currently banned from operating in the US. So, who is correct? How bad is it really? Who do we believe? It is difficult to gain any form of perspective on 5G without knowing more about the tech, so let’s dive right in.
The first thing to understand is that 5G is not one ‘thing’ in itself but a blanket term describing an entire suite of protocols for use in the ‘fifth generation’ of mobile communications. As such, it integrates several different technologies. 1G, the first generation of mobile phones, was analogue based and only allowed voice calls. 2G introduced digital encryption and limited data transfer allowing text and picture messaging. 3G’s enhanced data transfer rates and global compatibility enabled emails and video streaming, and 4G provided fast broadband internet access, allowing video calls, multi-player gaming, and HD video. The 5G system promises even faster data rates, but to fully implement it requires a completely different infrastructure from current 4G systems. This is still under development and we are not likely to see complete 5G implementation until at least the end of 2020; currently most mobile service providers advertising 5G services are really only pushing enhanced 4G signals using existing networks.
5G promises to be a momentous change in wireless communications, and as such it inevitably involves the introduction of innovative technology that is lacking in long-term testing. The main benefit of 5G is that it allows much larger amounts of data to be transmitted at significantly faster speeds than present systems, which enables high-definition live streaming, super-fast downloads and lower latency (signal lag). This latter feature is essential for the support of autonomous self-driving vehicles, ‘telepresence’ applications, virtual reality and the ‘Internet of Things’ – the so-called ‘smart grid’ where everything with the requisite chip installed will be connected to the internet through your phone or router. Whether this is a good thing or not is debatable; do we really need internet-connected toothbrushes?
Initially, the UK and Europe have allocated three main frequency bands for 5G services. Below 1 Gigahertz (GHz) is the ‘coverage layer’, lying around the 700MHz band, which will provide wide area and good indoor coverage as the lower frequencies travel farther and can penetrate walls easily. This then merges into the 1-6GHz band, which provides the best compromise between coverage and capacity. Current 4G frequency bands extend up to 2.6GHz, while the main band used for the launch of 5G is 3.4-3.8GHz. However, it is the frequencies above 6GHz, an area of the spectrum often referred to as the ‘millimetre wave’ band, that will eventually provide the super-high data capacity that will be the key enabler of 5G services once the technology has matured, and these are the ones likely to have the most adverse health effects. The initial spectrum allocation in Europe is around the 26GHz range, and the US has allocated 3 bands between 27 and 71GHz; but even higher frequencies up to 300GHz are under discussion. Part of this same spectrum (specifically, 95GHz) is already employed by the Active Denial System (ADS) non-lethal directed energy weapon developed by the US military for crowd control, which lightly penetrates the skin and causes painful burning sensations after just a few seconds exposure![i] By comparison, the full-body scanners used in airports employ frequencies between 24-30GHz, and radar systems use several frequencies up to 77GHz. Of course, it’s all about power density here, and the 5G networks will not be using anything like the levels of power generated by the ADS weapon, but it illustrates the point that these millimetre-wave frequencies are not necessarily harmless and we simply do not know about any long-term exposure effects because they are untested. These higher frequencies have also been shown to have more adverse effects on smaller animals, particularly birds, bees and other insects
The downside of working in these Extremely High Frequency (EHF) bands is that the practical transmission range becomes much shorter and the waves are easily absorbed by walls and other surfaces such as fabric, bodies, leaves on trees – even rain or smog, which means that many more transmitters have to be used to achieve network coverage. In urban areas, this will require a massive proliferation of small-cell transmitters; at the very least, there will likely be one on every available lamppost and utility pole, resulting in an exponential increase in levels of microwave exposure for everyone. This is what we should be worried about. Concerns have been raised by several researchers, and a consortium of over 200 concerned scientists from several countries recently called for a moratorium on the 5G rollout until further safety testing is carried out.[ii] There is some small consolation for UK residents in that the major phone companies have decided that it is not economically viable at present to install such dense small-cell networking, so the higher mm-wave frequencies will be reserved for backbone tight-beam data transmissions between masts, and ground/satellite links. Public user networks will be based on enhanced 4G technology below 26GHz.
The proposed 5G standard also calls for devices to switch seamlessly between several frequency bands, so the older phone frequencies used by 3G and 4G, and even Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, will all be conflated under the 5G banner. The higher frequency bands will also be included in domestic Wi-Fi routers to provide the same enhanced speeds and to provide 5G phone services indoors – which of course will require more Wi-Fi boosters around the house to ensure a good signal in every room as the higher frequencies cannot easily penetrate walls (current Wi-Fi routers operate in two bands, 2.4 and 5.8GHz and often require booster units in older houses with thicker walls). Some companies, in a battle with cable-based providers, are even touting 5G as a full replacement for cable or fibre internet, phone lines, and even television services to the home – although ironically many 5G base stations will themselves be dependent on having a high-speed fibre link to fulfil their bandwidth requirements.
Another 5G protocol specifies that the network must support connection densities of up to 1 million simultaneous connections per square kilometre at any given time – this is known as ‘massive MIMO’ (multiple input, multiple output). To achieve this, antennas and phone handsets will rely on what is known as ‘phased-array’ transmitters. Basically, this means that instead a few antennas on the mast broadcasting signals in all directions, there will be hundreds of tiny antennas arranged in arrays that can be tuned to direct a tight, focused beam between the mast and your phone (a similar ‘beamforming’ technology is already available in many home Wi-Fi routers, where the signal is directed to where it needs to go). These millimetre-wave transmitters can be extremely small – an 8×8 array of 64 tiny antennas can easily be fitted inside a phone handset. The permitted power output of these handset phased arrays can be up to 20 watts, which is ten times more powerful that presently permitted levels. In the case of your phone, the beam from the mast can track you as you move about, and in a crowded situation where lots of people are using their phones, or when the streets are busy with autonomous vehicles, this means that you might have several of these tight-focus beams hitting your body from several directions. Inevitably, this will lead to higher than normal power levels that exceed any recommended safety limits, which only consider the power of a single beam and in any case is based on outdated studies of thermal effects.[iii] Dr Kurt Oughston, a professor of electrical engineering and mathematics at the University of Vermont, Burlington, has expressed concern over the ability of EHF phased-array radiation to generate a burst of energy when it enters the body, allowing the radiation to penetrate much deeper than predicted by conventional models. Instead of the energy being absorbed within a few centimetres, a special type of field called a Brillouin precursor is generated, which can propagate a significant fraction of the energy deep into the tissue.[iv]
So, what can we, as individuals, do to protect ourselves? It
certainly seems prudent to continue or even enhance any basic procedures to
reduce or block the radiation in your home, particularly your sleeping place. Avoid
any 5G-enabled wireless gadgets in the home; keep your internet and phone on a
landline or fibre connection and get wired by connecting your devices with
Ethernet cable so that you can keep the Wi-Fi switched off except when you
absolutely have to use it (certainly switch it off at night). Use dLAN
Powerline adaptors to get Ethernet into other areas if you can’t run cables. Keep
any wireless devices out of the bedroom. Use screening materials to block
radiation – you can get carbon-based paint or absorbent wallpaper for walls,
and metallic fabrics for curtains and bed canopies. Keep your distance from any
transmitting devices, as power density falls off very quickly with distance in
accordance with the inverse square law. Finally, help campaign for more safety
studies on 5G by signing as many petitions as you can, and lobby your local
council to stop deployment in your area until better safety studies are