Check your phone signal while you’re out, and you’ll notice a tiny ‘4G’ displayed in the corner of your screen. If you’re in more rural areas, it might say ‘3G’ instead. The ‘G’ stands for ‘generation’, and the number tells you how speedy and strong your wireless network connection is - with 4G being the fastest, most reliable network available. Until now, that is.
Telecommunications companies around the world are now readying themselves to roll out the fifth-generation (5G) wireless mobile network, with operators in the US alone set to invest (1) $275 billion in infrastructure by 2025.
Promising super-high connection speeds, radically reduced response times, larger network capacity and greater reliability, the introduction of 5G will have transformative societal and economic effects; taking interconnectivity to unprecedented new heights and making dramatic shifts possible in almost every industry imaginable. And yet with such revolutionary network augmentation comes a massive, involuntary and inescapable increase in exposure to wireless radiation at significantly higher radio frequencies than ever before.
Below, we unpack the technology and take a look at the implications of 5G on our health, environment, ecosystems and the way we live.
Next generation: the difference between 4G and 5G
5G is able to achieve such blisteringly fast connection speeds and unparalleled network coverage because it works in a fundamentally different way (2) to 4G. Whereas 4G uses giant cell towers to transfer data, 5G uses much smaller cells and antennas. And whilst 4G networks operate on radio spectrum frequencies below 6 GHz, 5G uses far higher radio frequencies – up to 300 GHz - known as ‘millimetre waves’.
Though capable of working above the jumble of existing cellular data, the precise millimetre waves of 5G can only travel short distances – much shorter than current 4G signals. According to reports, (3) 5G cells will need to be installed every 250 metres (on structures such as doors, walls or streetlights) to guarantee connectivity. This proximity becomes particularly pertinent for densely populated areas like cities and towns, where, if you’re unlucky, 5G cells could even appear on unsightly 30 foot poles. (4) In fact, it’s thought that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new 5G antenna sites will be needed in the United states alone. This may come as unwelcome news to home owners, with studies showing (5) how house prices can drop by as much as 21% when a cell phone tower is erected in the neighbourhood.
Out of this world: 5G satellites in space
In addition to the millions of new ground-based 5G antennas, a number of companies – including SpaceX and Boeing - are intending to provide 5G from outer space. According to their plans, a total of 20, 000 satellites will use powerful, steerable beams to cover the Earth in a sea of 5G millimetre waves, with a radiated power of up to 5 million watts (6) – reaching remote areas not touched by ground-based cells. Perhaps most crucially, the proposed space satellites will be situated in what is known as the Earth’s ‘magnetosphere’ – leading a number of scientists to raise concerns (7) over the potential threat to life from any alteration to the Earth’s magnetic environment.
Game changer: how 5G has the potential to change everything
So, we know that 5G promises ultra-fast internet, with far greater coverage than 4G and more people able to connect to the network at once than ever before. In basic terms, this means you’ll be able to download movies in mere seconds, load website pages instantly and enjoy totally uninterrupted Skype calls from any remote tropical island you choose. And yet the implications of 5G reach much, much further than everyday internet browsing or downloads.
The growing array of internet-enabled, ‘smart’ technology, such as smart cars, automated home lighting, smart speakers, smart thermostats, smart washing machines, wireless security cameras, smart clothes – even smart monitor garments for babies, needs reliably fast connection speeds and network coverage to function. 5G will not only support such devices, but will allow for all of this smart technology to be connected to each other (and to us, our phones and computers), in a kind of invisible web of constant and endless data communication - sometimes mysteriously referred to as the ‘Internet of Things’. Simply put, in the ‘Internet of Things’, anything that can be connected (i.e. any device with an on/off switch to the internet), will be connected. Outside the walls of our homes, this rule extends to countless machine components - think jet engines or traffic lights. Astoundingly, analyst firm Gartner says that (8) by 2020 there will already be over 26 billion connected devices, with the trend on a one-way upward trajectory of growth.
What cost: the effects of 5G on our health and environment
But will this interconnectivity come at a cost? Established EMF scientist Dr Don Maisch warns that (9) the era of the ‘Internet of Things’ “dictates that human exposure to radiofrequency radiation must greatly increase in order to accommodate the technology. This is a planned world being created by technocrats totally ignorant of the reality of our biology, an ignorance fostered by the existing thermal-effects only standards/guidelines. Now, more than ever, we need new, biologically relevant standards to meet the challenge of the future”.
Maisch is not alone in his fears. According to a petition signed by 236 scientists (10) worldwide, 5G will result in “unprecedented environmental change on a global scale”. The appeal states that “despite widespread denial, the evidence that RF radiation is harmful to life is already overwhelming”, and goes on to demonstrate a cohesive body of scientific evidence of the damage caused to DNA, (11) cells (12) and organ systems in not only humans, (13) but also the animals, (14) birds (15) , pollinators (16) and plants (17) that we share our planet with, concluding that 5G threatens to “provoke serious, irreversible effects on humans and permanent damage to all of the Earth’s ecosystems”.
Testing, testing: the 5G guinea pigs
Regardless of these concerns, 5G networks are on the brink of being rolled out by telecoms companies with no pre-market safety testing. (18)
Unwilling to cast the Belgian public as the unsuspecting subjects of a potential public-health experiment, earlier this year Belgian minister Celine Fremault ordered a halt in 5G activity (19) until radiation levels can be accurately measured and proved safe. Speaking at the time, Ms Fremault said she could not allow 5G technology in her country “if the radiation standards […] are not respected”, adding that “the people of Brussels are not guinea pigs whose health I can sell at a profit. We cannot leave anything to doubt.” Switzerland echoed the EU capital’s sentiments, (20) slamming the brakes on the rollout of 5G over “uncertainty on the potential health effects of the new technology”, with a freeze on permits to erect any further 5G antennas and talks of a monitoring system being put in place (21) to assess radiation risk.
Unwilling to cast the Belgian public as the unsuspecting subjects of a potential public-health experiment, earlier this year Belgian minister Celine Fremault ordered a halt in 5G activity (22) until radiation levels can be accurately measured and proved safe. Speaking at the time, Ms Fremault said she could not allow 5G technology in her country “if the radiation standards […] are not respected”, adding that “the people of Brussels are not guinea pigs whose health I can sell at a profit. We cannot leave anything to doubt.” Switzerland echoed the EU capital’s sentiments, (23) slamming the brakes on the rollout of 5G over “uncertainty on the potential health effects of the new technology”, with a freeze on permits to erect any further 5G antennas and talks of a monitoring system being put in place (24) to assess radiation risk.
Similarly, after concerns were raised (25) over a 5G technology trial at the 2019 Glastonbury festival, the town’s council officially opposed (26) any wider rollout of the network, saying “this council has a social responsibility to protect the public and environment from exposure to harm, albeit unpredictable in the current state of scientific knowledge, and therefore opposes the roll-out of 5G in the Parish of Glastonbury […] until further information is revealed.”
With the increased susceptibility to cyberattacks and cybercrime that a totally digitally connected world would inevitably bring, even if unconcerned about the health risks associated with 5G, governments around the globe certainly seem anxious (27) over the potential security threat involved.
Whatever conclusions you draw on 5G, there’s no doubt that wireless technology is advancing at a quicker rate than we are able to test and guarantee its absolute safety; which may be just how Big Wireless Industry prefers to keep it.