The roll-out of fifth generation (5G) networks (alongside the suite of 5G-enabled mobile devices) has already begun with several countries keen to install the infrastructure required to usher in a new generation of connectivity.
The technology and telecommunication industries are actively preparing for a new era of wireless which they say will facilitate extensive economic opportunities and set the stage for a futuristic modern society that looks something akin to The Jetsons.
5G technology is being promoted as the vehicle that will deliver faster wireless speeds for mobile users and spur new innovation for internet-connected devices.
To put things into perspective, 4G is around ten times faster than 3G, where as 5G can send data as much as a thousand times faster than 4G.
This next generation of connectivity is the latest – and according to tech market analysts – the greatest wireless networking technology that will be used by all digital devices including phones, cars, laptops, and even smartwatches.
In a report titled 5G – Enabling the future economy, published by the Australian Government’s Department of Communication and the Arts, 5G will provide “the underlying architecture for the next wave of productivity and innovation across different sectors of the Australian economy”.
The report also claims that efficient roll-out of 5G and uptake of the services it supports has the potential to produce “far-reaching economic and social benefits and support growth of Australia’s digital economy”.
Bold claims indeed, for a bright future in an internet of things (IoT)-powered Australia that will ultimately sync up with the ongoing roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN), and allowing “greater capabilities for the seamless delivery of services across high-speed mobile, fixed line and fixed wireless networks”.
According to Swedish telecom giant Ericsson, 5G subscriptions will reach 1.5 billion people by 2024 with coverage set to extend to over 40% of the world’s population.
However, the scope of the roll-out is far from equilateral, which means some countries and regions are set to receive 5G sooner than others.
According to research published by British consultancy firm Ovum, up to a third of North American mobile connections will be on a 5G network by 2023 with other countries such as Japan, South Korea and the UK also leading the pack when it comes to implementation.
In September last year, Japanese company NTT DOCOMO successfully achieved 25–27 Gbps download speeds in a collaborative 5G trial with Mitsubishi Electric.
The duo said its test could be used to develop a high-speed 5G network that works with vehicles and other devices as part of the IoT boom.
Bearing the brunt
To help usher in the next generation of 5G connectivity globally, responsibility has been passed over to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialised agency working as an offshoot from the United Nations, purposed for standardising information and communications technologies on a global scale.
The thinking is that for 5G networks to be compatible, efficient and seamless, they will need to be homogenous and work in accordance to an agreed standard.
The fear is that if multinationals are left to their own devices, we could see a repeat of what happened with AC sockets and mobile phone chargers – a diversity of technologies with different voltages and designs that eventually led to people needing a converter each time they go on holiday.
Governments from across the world have authorised the ITU to undertake the formal, international process to identify bands for 5G by 2020.
It has developed draft technical specifications for 5G including high data rates (1 Gbps for hotspots, 100 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload for wide-area coverage). Higher rates of data transfer will also be supplemented by greater connectivity with ultra-low latency, estimated to be around 1 million connections per square kilometre.
Consumers are set to receive a jamboree of data-rich services with high-speed trains and planes to receive broadband-speed connections for the first time.
Meanwhile, businesses are looking forward to more commercial opportunities backed by “ultra-reliable” networking that enable mission-critical functions.
Potential health hazard
Despite the promise of abundant consumer benefits, with every new technological advance, there are always critics that question the validity and/or the rationale for futuristic new advances.
In the case of 5G, multiple sources claim that the technology carries negative health effects caused by cell tower radiation.
The critique is that cell towers will broadcast higher frequency signals to sustain the larger amount of data required by more intensive data transmissions. Higher-frequency transmissions mean signals dissipate quicker than 3G or 4G, and, therefore, more cell towers will be required.
5G providers have openly proposed to mount their transmitters on streetlight poles and traffic lights.
Critics claim that the closer a person is located to antennas such as cell phone towers, small cells and mobile devices, the worse off they are.
The research into the impact of electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) has proved that they can cause chronic ailments, but the extent and degree are still in question.
Research conducted at Paris Descartes University in 2014 found that sensitivity to EMFs can be objectively diagnosed by commercially available simple tests, and that EMFs cause inflammation, oxidative stress, autoimmune conditions, as well as disrupting the circadian rhythm of organic living beings.
Magda Havas, a biologist at Ontario’s Trent University, estimates that 3% of the population has severe reactions to EMFs and another 35% are compromised by a variety of negative externalities including poor sleep, depression, reduced concentration and higher anxiety.
More extreme symptoms can include heart trouble, dizziness, nausea and difficulties with movement, according to Ms Havas.
Superficial effects such as depression, anxiety and sleep may only be the tip of the iceberg.
In 2016, Armenian researchers found that a 5G microwave environment retarded the growth of single-cell organisms and could also increase resistance to antibiotics in some bacteria.
Some of the most worrisome research shows that high-frequency 5G waves can be absorbed into the skin and reach deeper into the body with sweat ducts acting as antennas.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program, rats exposed to EMFs for nine hours a day over two years developed unusual brain and heart tumours and sustained damage to their DNA.
Researchers fear that by being able to penetrate deeper into human tissue, 5G waves can disrupt the nervous and endocrine systems. Prolonged exposure could potentially cause skin irritation and precipitate a variety of skin diseases, including cancers.
Outside of human effects, scientists have found that steady exposure to EMFs can disrupt birds and their nesting behaviour, disorient bees and damage plant and tree growth.
Farmable crops such as wheat have been shown to spark a “stress response”, altering its complex biochemistry. These effects can therefore impact natural habitats, the food chain and dozens of organisms that depend on them.
The health issues highlighted by various scientists have led the International Society of Doctors for the Environment with affiliated organisations in more than 25 countries, to call for suspending 5G’s spread until its effects are better understood.
Also, more than 200 EMF scientists in 41 countries have signed the International EMF Scientist Appeal, which highlights myriad studies indicating health dangers associated with low levels of wireless radiation.
The scientists want 5G’s progress halted until these studies can be confirmed or proven wrong.
Economics meets health
5G’s high-frequency waves require small cell towers to be deployed closer to users with more antennas to expand its data-intensive coverage.
Research is currently ongoing with the time required to establish a definitive conclusion estimated at around 20 years or more.
Telecom companies simply cannot wait that long and have lobbied legislators to approve 5G networks well before research has been done. Or so the critics say.
Some of the more ardent critics are suggesting that 5G will not only pose health risks but even more worryingly, could be setting the stage for an Orwellian control grid that enables more Big Brother-style spying and monitoring of society.
5G will stitch together every building, appliance, retailer, and customer via the Internet. Every car will be exchanging data with every other vehicle in its neighbourhood, not to mention the computers that will control traffic flow.
If such technology is used nefariously, the potential danger to society as a whole could extend far beyond health effects.
Trash or treasure
The biggest proponents of 5G technology (telecommunication companies and governments) claim that its adoption will usher in lightning-fast wireless internet speeds and increased capacity to deal with the growth in internet devices and user demand for bandwidth.
The new standard has the potential to bring services such as virtual reality to mobile users, forge a path for driverless cars to market and enable the development of so-called “smart cities,” which require growing reams of data to manage their sprawling infrastructure.
Further down the track, and assuming advances in the medical industry keep up, there’s even the prospect that higher-bandwidth networks will enable doctors to remotely perform surgeries by controlling robotic arms.
Rural areas could also benefit and see internet-powered services for the first time.
However, there is a clear and present danger that 5G networks could compromise society by making all devices more hackable and the consequences even more devastating if such hacks occur – simply because everything is more connected and integrated.
There is also the possible risk of radiation causing harm with critics adamant that signal radiation will follow the path of cigarettes – first thought of as a safe consumer product, only to prove harmful and carcinogenic after further investigation and research.
With the jury still out on the safety, efficacy or even the necessity of 5G networks, the world’s governments have declared the technology safe while telecommunication companies are readying their market assault with a menu of 5G-powered services set to hit store shelves in a region near you.