In the first of a four-part mini series, we're exploring everything you need to know about the controversial 5G network roll out that's happening right here, right now...
The Full 5G Update: Part 1
2019 was the year that 5G began its advance on British soil, with telecoms companies racing to capitalise on the next generation network roll out.
After a fiercely contested battle with rival providers, the claxon was officially fired on 30th May 2019 when EE switched on the UK’s very first 5G network, launching its service (1) in six cities. Vodafone came soon after, with O2 following in October.
With the network in its metaphorical infancy, 5G coverage is currently limited - hence why you probably still find yourself and your phone firmly in the realm of 4G, or even 3G.
However, dozens more UK towns and cities – as well as many more abroad - have taken the plunge in 2020, as the 5G network steadily continues its spread across the globe.
But the 5G roll out isn’t only rooted to the ground. Right now, scores of new 5G satellites are being launched (3) into the earth’s close orbit by entities ranging from Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Telesat, Amazon and even Facebook. SpaceX alone has plans to launch a total of 42,000 5G satellites.
Remind me, what exactly is 5G?
Standing for ‘fifth generation mobile network’, 5G is the latest generation in a series of mobile communications systems.
Starting with the advent of the mobile phone, we have so far lived through: 2G; which allowed us to send text messages, 3G; which made mobile internet browsing possible, and the most commonly used current digital mobile network; 4G.
Ok, but what does 5G make possible that 4G can’t?
The arrival of 5G heralds an entirely new era for mobile communication and a vast digital revolution – with the potential to transform almost every aspect of life as we know it.
5G is not the same as 4G. 5G is expected to be (4) 100 times faster than 4G, more reliable and with a far greater data carrying capacity. This means colossal downloads will be complete in a heartbeat and streaming to multiple devices at once will become second nature.
But more than this, 5G is distinct from all of the generations that have gone before it, in that it is unlikely to be defined by (5) any single technology.
Referred to as the ‘network of networks’ because of the way it will combine existing and future systems (including the current 4G network), 5G will “act as the connective tissue of tomorrow’s digital economy, linking everything from smartphones to wireless sensors to industrial robots and self-driving cars,” says (6) Malcolm Johnson, Deputy Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Within this vision, 5G will bring about a new, all-powerful ‘smart city’ system that binds together not only our mobile phones and televisions, but multiple sensors, artificial intelligence, The Cloud, Big Data, augmented reality, automation and intelligent machines, to “derive insights from data that is generated by billions of connected devices” (7) – resulting in what is being termed the ‘Internet of Things’, or IoT for short.
According to Dr. Volodymyr Kolinko, CEO of Visicom, a Ukraine-based geodata provider company: “5G will open possibilities to cover not only dense built-up territories in cities but suburbs and villages, and will really unlock the potential of the IoT and smart cities development, connecting all people and all things.”
But how will 5G manage to achieve this connection of “all people and all things”?
Whilst 5G will utilise existing 4G technology, in order to support the data saturated Internet of Things, 5G will also need to unlock (8) new, higher frequency spectrum bands - higher than any mobile network has gone before - known as ‘millimetre wave’ frequency.
The problem is, these high-frequency 5G waves have a very short range, struggling to carry data for any real distance at all.
In fact, the millimetre wave signal can be so sensitive, it can apparently be (9) blocked by roofs, pipes or even vegetation. To counter this, telecoms companies will need to build a much denser, more invasive infrastructure of hundreds of thousands – possibly millions - of small transmitters, with estimates suggesting (10) that transmitters will need to be placed every two to ten houses apart if the network is to function properly.
In basic terms, this means you can expect to see LOTS of new 5G transmitters cropping up all over your neighbourhood.
In the US, such plans have already hit a stumbling block, by way of anxious members of the public, who are perhaps understandably not so keen (11) on the idea of 5G equipment appearing “on streetlights or utility poles, often accompanied by containers the size of refrigerators on the ground,” which they feel will “clutter neighbourhoods with eyesores and cost the communities a lot of potential revenue.”
Jim Baller, the president of a Washington law firm, summed the conflict up when he said that “residents across the country are just now beginning to understand the harms that hasty and insensitive small cell deployments can inflict on their communities.”
In the UK, reports suggest (12) that rural areas could see ‘bigger and taller’ 5G masts built without councils’ permission, under a proposed overhaul of planning rules to allow the government to fast-track its roll out of 5G.
Currently, masts on public land ‘must be no more than 25m (82ft) high’, but ministers are pushing to relax these rules and forge ahead with masts as high as 50m tall. To put this into context: Nelson’s Column towers above London’s Trafalgar Square at 52m.
But it’s not only the aesthetic aspect of this massive increase in high frequency transmitters that is causing concern.
What is the 5G Space Appeal?
With the promised digital linking of “all people and all things”, many members of the public, doctors, and scientists, are increasingly worried that exposure to millimetre wave 5G radiation will be 24/7, 365 days a year, with no informed consent given or possibility of escape offered – leading to grave concerns over the potential adverse impacts of the 5G roll out.
As of January 2020, 194,749 people, including hundreds of scientists, from 204 nations, had signed an urgent appeal (13) to the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the EU, asking them to take the risks posed by electromagnetic radiation more seriously.
The 5G Space Appeal calls for a total freeze on the new network rollout until it can be proven safe, and asks that public health and the environment are properly protected.
Citing health dangers already associated with existing wireless radiation - from cellular stress to fertility issues - the appeal encourages the establishment of better and more thorough testing, restrictions and protective measures.
Next up in our four-part 5G series: Is there any evidence that 5G is harmful to health?