Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

5G: hype vs reality – Expert Q&A

5G has been lauded as a game-changing technology, but will 5G actually change our lives?

The latest upgrade to the mobile network has been making headlines with concerns about health risks and the potential interference with weather satellites relied on by forecasters.

Last December, the Ministry of Health’s technical advisory committee on non-ionising radiation reported that that it didn’t think the latest research warranted any changes to the current health exposure standards for radiation within the radio section of the spectrum. The radio spectrum has long been considered safe and has been used to transmit our TV, radio and mobile phone signals over long distances for decades.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 5G hype machine has been going into overdrive, promising the new technology will allow fleets of driverless cars to navigate our streets and surgeons to perform operations remotely.

So beyond making our phones and internet faster, how will 5G change the lives of ordinary New Zealanders? And should we be worried about weather forecasting, cybersecurity threats, or getting cancer from the technology?

The SMC approached experts to answer questions about what to expect from 5G technology. 

Dr Faraz Hasan
Martin Gledhill
Prof Keith Petrie
Bruce Hartley
Iman Soltanzadeh

Dr Faraz Hasan, Senior Lecturer, Communication Engineering and Networks, Massey University, comments:

What is 5G? How is the 5G technology different from the 4G networks we have now?

“Just like Microsoft regularly releases new versions of Windows, mobile phone technology is also releasing its latest version called 5G. The first version of mobile phone technology is called the first ‘Generation’ or 1G, the one we are currently using is 4G, and the one that will become available in 2020 is called 5G.

“5G is better than 4G for the same reason that 4G is better than 3G – it’s about how quickly you can send and receive information, and how many devices you can connect to the network simultaneously.”

There’s been a lot of hype around 5G, what commercial applications are we most likely to see in New Zealand?

“5G will be great for data-hungry applications, for example virtual reality. We often take virtual reality to mean online gaming, which is only ‘one’ of its dimensions. 5G’s ability to handle large volumes of data can enable several ‘virtually real’ use cases like remotely driven cars, live streaming the scene attended by first responders, allowing online medical consultations, etc.

“In New Zealand, a clever amalgamation of artificial intelligence and 5G can help predict traffic congestion on roads and highways. ‘Predictive maintenance’ is the ability to predict the failure of manufacturing equipment before it happens! The key to making accurate predictions lies in the ability to quickly transfer lots and lots of data, which the current 4G technology cannot sustain.

“Large datasets acquired from hundreds of sensors spread across agricultural land can likewise help in monitoring and predicting important parameters like soil conditions, dampness, salinity, etc.

“5G can help extend the reach of the government’s fibre optic infrastructure using wireless links, while maintaining fibre-like speeds and capacity. ‘Wiring up’ the customers who are intending to subscribe to the service has caused some problems recently, which can be avoided using 5G. If 4G services are used for the same purpose, the overall capacity of fibre will be adversely affected.

“It is expected that more applications will emerge as 5G becomes available at a commercial scale.”

What are the biggest cybersecurity concerns with the rollout of the 5G network in New Zealand? Do we need to be concerned about keeping our data safe?

“Security issues will always remain associated with connectivity in general. The severity of these issues increases if connectivity is ‘wireless’. Because we are interconnecting not just our laptops and mobile phones, but also vehicles, medical professionals, livestock, even our power grid with 5G, any breach in security may have far-reaching implications.

“The heterogeneity among the connected devices has never been experienced before. Unique security solutions each customised to a particular kind of device will be needed in the 5G era.

“Some people are pointing out that private information like a user’s location may get compromised due to 5G. Because the range of a 5G base station will be small, the network can potentially know a more precise fix of a device’s location just by knowing which base station it is connected to.”

The Government is proposing to use the 3.5 GHz band of the radio spectrum for 5G. Will this interfere with any other uses of the radio spectrum and will this be the only band they allocate?

“The initial 5G deployment is expected to use the 3.5GHz band, locally and internationally. The government is in the process of dedicating this spectrum for 5G so it does not interfere with any other application. 5G transmissions on the proposed 3.5GHz band are not expected to interfere with water-vapour wavelengths either.

“The other frequency band of interest for 5G deployment is 28GHz, but it is not clear how long will it take NZ and the rest of the world to start using that band.”

No conflict of interest.

Martin Gledhill, Director, EMF Services, comments:

What, in your view, are the most significant recent takeaways from international research into the biological effects of technology used in mobile phones and wifi? 

“Recent research confirms the validity of current exposure limits. It also shows that in everyday life, exposures are normally far below the limits.”

What new evidence would trigger a change in safety standards? 

“Any new research has to be assessed both on its own merits, and also in the context of the large amount of previous research that has been carried out. To change the safety standards, you would need well-conducted studies from independent research groups that provide consistent results showing an effect occurring at levels below those currently allowed. Preferably you would also have some idea of the mechanism underlying the effect (i.e. the processes by which the exposure causes the effect).”

Are there any anticipated milestones that researchers in the field are looking out for?

“Events that will be of particular interest are:

  • Publication of a WHO review of the health effects research. I don’t expect this to be out until next year at the earliest.
  • Publication of results from the COSMOS study. This is a long term study that is tracking the health of about 300,000 mobile phone users in six European countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom). It has a great advantage over previous studies in that mobile phone use is ascertained at the start of the study and reviewed as time goes on (rather than relying on participants’ memory of their use from many years previously). It will also use operator records to check phone use.
  • Publication of results from the Mobi-Kids study. This is an international study that looked at whether cellphone use is associated with brain tumour risks in children. There was a New Zealand arm of the study, led by the Massey Centre for Public Health Research.”

Is there anything significantly different about the 5G technology that may change the health risk compared to other mobile phone technologies or wifi?

“No. 5G is just a new application of radio technology, and the knowledge gained from some sixty years of research is as applicable to 5G as any other form of radio technology. The radio frequencies to be used by 5G are similar to those that have been used for several decades.”

Conflict of interest statement: I work for government agencies, industry (including [current clients in]* the telecommunications industry) and members of the public. In order to provide measurement services that accurately reflect exposure levels in the areas of interest, I use measurement equipment that is calibrated against national standards, and follow any appropriate measurement standards. Advice on health effects is guided by the findings of reviews of the relevant research that have been published by independent national and international health and scientific bodies. I do not sell any products that protect (or claim to protect) against exposures to electromagnetic fields.  

*In response to a complaint, the above conflict of interest statement was amended on 29/8/19 to clarify whether disclosed work for the telecommunications industry is current or in the past.

Prof Keith Petrie, Professor of Health Psychology, University of Auckland, comments:

What, in your view, are the most significant recent takeaways from international research into the biological effects of technology used in mobile phones and wifi? 

“The majority of studies show that there is no relationship between weak electromagnetic field exposure and symptoms or health. Some people report that they are sensitive to the electromagnetic fields used in mobile phone and wifi. Studies show that such people do experience symptoms, but only when they knowthey are being exposed. In double-blind conditions where they are exposed without knowing whether the electromagnetic field is on or off, no reliable effects are apparent.

“There are now a large number of such studies that show no convincing evidence to support that weak electromagnetic fields cause symptoms. The symptoms that people report are a result of the nocebo effect.

“There is also some evidence that media stories about sensitivity to electromagnetic fields can increase symptoms being attributed to such exposure.”

What new evidence would trigger a change in safety standards? 

“Strong evidence of health effects.”

Why does this topic keep coming up?

“Worries about new technology causing health problems are not new. Throughout history, there are many examples of the introduction of new technology being followed by new symptoms and illness.

“There was a fear when telephones were introduced that they caused an increase in aural pressure, giddiness and pain. Similarly with radios that radio signals caused an increase in nausea. There were also fears that steam trains caused problems in the spine because the human body was not designed to go so fast. Following the introduction of visual display units in Scandinavia there were reports of skin problems and other symptoms.

“The internet has now brought a new dimension to worries about technology and unsubstantiated health worries can be spread instantly to those with similar concerns.”

No conflict of interest.

Bruce Hartley, Systems Engineering Manager, Metservice, comments:

How does 5G interfere with satellite communications?

“The implementation of 5G will potentially be made in many bands across the radio frequency spectrum.  The current focus is on the frequency bands in the GigaHertz (GHz) area.

“Some frequency bands may affect either satellite communications, weather satellite data collection, or both.

“The impacts on satellite communications, earth-to-space and/or space-to-earth, are under the management of telecommunications service providers, and not a direct concern to MetService. Even if a communications link is affected, there are other technology or band usage options that can be applied to mitigate the issue. It is the impacts on weather satellite data collection that are a significant issue and of concern to MetService. This is because there is the potential for spurious emissions from equipment using 5G (e.g. transmitters such as cell towers, cell phones and smart devices) to “leak” out of the approved band(s) and into adjacent bands that are important for weather forecasting.

“It is normal for transmitter equipment to produce leakage, but this needs to be controlled by manufacturers and managed by regulators to minimise disruption.

“The leakage from one transmitter is not normally an issue.The problem occurs when many devices are transmitting at the same time and within the view of the weather satellite receiver.

“For example, for the 23.8 GHz water vapour channel, the weather satellite receivers are passive and the signals being monitored are coming from water molecules in the atmosphere. This channel cannot be changed and there is no way to amplify the monitored signal above the accumulated leakage.”

What can we do about potential interference with weather forecasting? 

“For weather satellite data collection the method of mitigation is to protect the various radio frequencies that are being measured by the weather satellites.

“This can be done by:

 1) Not allowing any equipment to transmit in the nearby radio frequency spectrum i.e. using a suitably wide guard band; and

 2) Restricting the amount of spurious emission/leakage allowed from any transmitting device so that the cumulative leakage will not significantly affect the data being received at the satellite.

“These methods are normally implemented by the radio spectrum regulatory body in a country, in New Zealand this is the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Radio Spectrum Management.

“MetService participates in the Radio Sector Group, convened by Radio Spectrum Management, where MetService puts forward its viewpoints and submissions on any matters related to the frequencies it depends on.

“Given the way equipment is distributed across the planet and given that radio waves do not stop at a country border, it is a general practice that countries (and manufacturers) work towards the same or similar negotiated rules for usage of radio frequencies. This is done through the International Telecommunications Union.”

The government has recently released a discussion document on the frequency band that 5G will use in NZ. According to that document, 5G deployment is going to use the 3.5GHz band, which is not expected to interfere with the frequency band that is of interest for capturing water vapour data. Could you confirm this?

“The 3.5 GHz band is one of several frequency bands that are being looked at for 5G use and this band is currently before Cabinet for approval. The 3.5 GHz band does not pose any other significant issues for MetService or the global meteorological community. The 26 GHz band is also being looked at for 5G use and this is the band that MetService are concerned about because of its close proximity to the water vapour channel (23.8 GHz).”

No conflict of interest.

Iman Soltanzadeh, Manager Forecasting Research & Development, Metservice, comments:

What implications does 5G have for weather forecasting? Are these restricted to New Zealand, or will they affect global forecasting?

“To explain how the spurious emissions from 5G or other equipment affect the radio frequency bands measured by the weather satellites and therefore weather forecasting, it helps to clarify the importance of satellite measurements to atmospheric modelling.

“Assimilating weather satellite data into global and local weather models improves the results of the models and therefore increases the accuracy of forecasts. Studies show the influence of satellite observations in global models is higher in the Southern Hemisphere than the Northern Hemisphere, due to the lower numbers of surface observations in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Weather satellites mostly measure the energy reflected or emitted by gases and objects below them using passive sensors. One example, is water vapour which is a crucial gas for atmospheric modelling because it contributes directly to the prediction of storms and weather patterns. Compared to some other atmospheric gases, water vapour is harder to measure because it emits a very weak signal at 23.8 GHz. Any interference to this signal reduces the quality of the water vapour measurements, consequently reducing the quality of the weather predictions.

“This is a global issue that could affect many countries. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), national meteorological offices, and organisations dependent on weather around the world are raising their concerns and highlighting the impacts 5G could have in relation to the 23.8 GHz water vapour channel.”

Are there any changes to the methods we use to forecast that could overcome these issues?

“Any radio frequency interference to data collected by global weather satellites that reduces the quality of atmospheric remote sensing and particularly water vapour measurements will reduce the quality of weather predictions. MetService can only reduce the impact of this risk.

“MetService are continually looking at incorporating more diverse sources of weather observation into our modelling systems and analyses to mitigate single points of failure. MetService are also investing in strengthening quality control of observations and improving model verification tools to minimise the impacts of low quality data and therefore maintain the quality of forecasts.”