A Quick Sense-Check on 5G & Health


ByRichard Griffiths

September 12, 2019

Richard Griffiths

There’s nothing that the Internet likes more than a good scare story. It’s so easy to generate an endorphin rush and boost your self-esteem by clicking the share button on a post that warns your hundreds of social media connections about the latest health controversy. Many people believe that if it’s on the Internet then there must be some truth in it and that “there’s no smoke without fire”.

But while most of us have moved on from conspiracy theories about chemtrails, Bigfoot, or faked moon landings, some people are still sharing that nonsense photo about the behaviour of wolf packs in the tundra as though it is a heart-warming truth that we humans can learn from.

Searching for the facts does not always help when the Internet will cough up plenty of web sites that support your fake news because literally anyone can publish anything online without understanding (or even having to check) the facts. And it may also shock you to hear that some people invent stories and publish them online as facts… just for fun.

I mention all this as a preamble because following my last post “5G for Beginners” I have received a number of questions about the safety of 5G on human health. It turns out that the latest craze for Internet scare stories is on the subject of 5G. For the avoidance of doubt, a flock of birds did not die in the Netherlands during an early trial of 5G. This story is an Internet hoax as fake as the description of the three elderly wolves leading the wolf pack.

Like any technology breakthrough, it is right that 5G is scrutinised and rigorously tested as long as that scrutiny is undertaken and validated by professional scientists. I am not one of these scientists. However I am a rational person who understands the need to check facts and logically assess evidence in context.

5G Is Just An Evolution Of 4G Mobile Radio Technologies

What we call 5G is a collection of improvements in mobile radio and network technologies that together can deliver much higher download speeds and much lower latency through the network than 4G technologies. These improvements are not in themselves ground-breaking new technologies like, for example, DNA Digital Storage that will eventually replace hard drives and flash memory. Because it builds on the knowledge of 2G, 3G, and 4G mobile technologies, 5G is a very well understood evolution of what went before. The clue was in the name given to 4G: Long Term Evolution or LTE. 5G may be New Radio, but it’s a relatively mature technology.

Government Regulators Are Licencing 5G Frequencies

It’s also important to understand that the focus of the Internet’s concerns is not about the 5G standard itself but rather the radio frequencies that are being allocated to it by government regulators worldwide. Many of these radio frequencies have been used for decades already for everything from satellite TV broadcasts to emergency services communications. Government regulators clear these frequencies and allocate them for 5G mobile phones. So before a mobile phone company can do anything with the 5G technology, the frequency is cleared, approved, and licenced by government regulators in markets around the world specifically for use in consumer mobile communications.

5G In Two Frequency Bands

In general, 5G is being licenced in two frequencies: c-band around 3.5 GHz and mm-wave between 30-300 GHz. Most operators around the world are launching 5G in c-band and primarily US operators launching commercial services in mm-wave. Some operators are launching 5G services on the exact same frequencies that are used elsewhere for 2G, 3G, or 4G services. The point is that the term “5G” is meaningless when the Internet actually wants to talk about the characteristics of the different frequencies it utilises. So we will stop talking about 5G and instead talk about radio frequencies.

The Characteristics Of 5G Frequencies

Frequency has a few important impacts on the mobile phone network. The lower the frequency, the

  1. Larger the antenna
  2. Farther the signal can travel from the antenna
  3. Better the signal can go through walls to give coverage within buildings
  4. Fewer antennas you need

Each time we have launched a new generation of mobile technology, regulators have had to find new, higher frequencies to allocate to that generation. The impact on mobile operators is this:

  1. Antennas are smaller
  2. The signal does not travel as far from the antenna
  3. Reception of that signal is worse indoors
  4. More antennas are needed

When we get to mm-wave frequencies the signal has no chance of getting through walls, buildings, trees, and sometimes even heavy rain. It does not mean that the radio waves from those sites must be more powerful as we go up the frequencies. It means that operators have to build more and more mobile sites to give the same coverage. In data-hungry South Korean cities, the mobile antennas are only about 300 meters from each other creating a very dense network for the lower 4G frequencies that can also be utilised for the higher 5G frequencies. In other countries, these 4G network sites can be kilometres apart and new ones will be needed for 5G.

5G’s C-band Frequency Is Surrounded By Wi-Fi

Mobile phone signals are classified as “non-ionising” radio waves- the same as the TV signals that have surrounded us for decades. This means they do not possess enough energy to affect the thing they are passing through or bouncing off. Another non-ionising radio is Wi-Fi, which also surrounds us. Wi-Fi is interesting because your home router probably transmits in two frequency bands at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, neatly sandwiching our 3.5 GHz c-band 5G signals. Wi-Fi operating in these frequencies is everywhere – our bedrooms, coffee shops, and even airplanes. We complain when it is not present. Yet it sends signals over a frequency that is higher than our new c-band 5G and we happily plug new Wi-Fi routers in our homes to get faster speeds.

Power-efficient Antennas

We discussed how c-band and mm-wave are higher frequencies than those used for previous generations of mobile technology. This means that the antennas themselves are physically smaller and the signal does not reach so far. The answer is not to increase the power of the transmission. First, it would uneconomically increase the telco’s electricity bill at the antenna site. Second, and more importantly to most mobile phone users, it would drain the phone’s battery quicker and mobile batteries are already pushed to the limit giving barely a day’s usage on 4G. This has led to the development of two new types of 5G antenna. The first is the small cell. This, as the name suggests, is a small square unit that looks like a Wi-Fi device that incorporates four 5G transmitters and four receivers. They are deployed indoors at places like airports or sports stadiums where there are high densities of people needing a connection and the physical structure blocks the reception of 5G frequencies. A public building may need thousands of such low-power small cells to provide adequate 5G coverage.

5G Uses Just One-Tenth the Power Per Bit of Data

The second is the massive-MIMO antenna which incorporates 32 transmitters and 32 receivers (or 64+64) into a single unit for c-band. With so many individual antennas in such a small space, the massive-MIMO uses AI to vary the power to adjacent antennas and create a beam like a spotlight that tracks the receiving mobile phone instead of dumbly enveloping the entire radius of the antenna in radio waves. This is called beamforming. 5G antennas that use beamforming require approximately one-tenth the power per bit of data transmitted, making them both efficient and scalable.

Over the last 30 years, there has not been a global epidemic of unexplained physiological illnesses that can be attributed to the ubiquitous use of mobile phones operating on any frequency. This does not mean that we can stop scrutinising new technologies and new uses of radio waves. But it does mean that there’s no specific evidence that we are heading towards a scary unknown universe as depicted by some as a result of 5G.

So, in summary, feel free to upgrade your phone to the latest 5G model utilising non-ionising frequencies licenced by your government regulator specifically for mobile communications and employing the latest power-efficient antennas without worry. No matter what the latest Internet meme scares you into believing.

Click the link for more information about why you should be excited about Huawei 5G.

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

3 thoughts on “A Quick Sense-Check on 5G & Health

  1. Cool, you managed to actually prance around the subject completely without getting to the fact that 5G is untested. I look forward to your public trials.

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Richard Griffiths

VP, MSSD Consulting Office, Huawei. Richard's extensive ICT expertise covers the TV, video, and carrier network sectors, including 5G.

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