Muhammad A. Imran and Yusuf A. Sambo (University of Glasgow, Scotland), Robert Stewart (University of Strathclyde, Scotland), and Rahim Tafazolli (University of Surrey, England)
Published: 7 May 2020
CTN Issue: May 2020
A note from the editor:
The role of 5G networks and communication technologies has become more important than ever before in our fight with Covid-19. In our April Issue, we discussed how 5G and future technologies and their applications can benefit the society during the ongoing Pandemic. Contact tracing and monitoring for disease elimination, ultra-reliable and low latency communications for tele and remote health applications, AI and machine learning for self-organizing network, massive machine type communications for autonomous decisions and computing technologies for ultra-high definition multimedia contents to name a few.
In this issue, Muhammad, Yusuf, Robert and Rahim present facts and figures to dispel recent rumors and conspiracy theories related to 5G networks including “5G spreads Covid-19” which has gone viral on social media, and argue that the deployment of 5G and its use cases must continue apace, but that there is a role for governments and regulatory bodies to continue monitoring the compliance of these technologies for the benefit of our society and economy. Got more myths? Let us know through comments.
Muhammad Zeeshan Shakir, Editor
Busting the Myths About 5G – Facts Versus Fiction
The popularity of mobile communication systems has come with a new wave of discussion and worries about the adverse health effects of Radio-frequency (RF) exposure. Looking back over the last 25 years, previous generations of mobile systems and, indeed, Wi-Fi have been accused of being harmful, although the claims would die out over time until a new generation is about to be launched.
The advent of the next evolution of mobile and wireless systems to 5G has, as expected, rekindled the Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) exposure concerns but on a much bigger scale this time. This is perhaps due in part of the wildfire-like propagation of information on social media, as well as to its grand key performance metrics that promise to revolutionise mobile communications with new services from the “new radio”. The COVID-19 pandemic has not helped matters either as people are in such a desperate situation that they have become vulnerable to pseudo-science and the fake news linking 5G to COVID-19. Even more worrying is that some of these claims are being amplified by detached members of the scientific community and engineers who rely on this pseudo-science and popular reaction for evidence.
In this article, we will rely on facts to bust the top 6 myths on 5G that have gone viral. It is important now more than ever to debunk these claims, given that some misinformed individuals have started vandalizing mobile base stations (some of which are actually 2G) and harassing telecom workers. Telecom infrastructure must be protected, especially in these trying times, as telecommunication networks have proven to be essential in supporting the global economy, including healthcare services.
Myth 1: 5G Radiation Is Harmful
5G, just like all previous generations of mobile systems, operates on the RF spectrum, which is a broad range of EMF frequencies starting from a few kHz to 300 GHz. For the non-RF and non-technical readers, RF waves used for mobile and wireless communication are classified as non-ionizing radiation, meaning they do not possess enough energy to knock-off tightly bound electrons from the orbit of an atom . They, however, have enough energy to excite free moving electrons and ions, as well as polar molecules, pushing them into higher energy states. This EMF energy is converted to kinetic energy, which is then converted to heat as the free moving particles and polar molecules interact. This is why the heating effect is used to examine the health risks of exposure to RF radiation .
Relying on theoretical and experimental studies, the International Commission on Non -Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has adopted conservative reference levels, above which adverse health effects could occur. It then set limits on EMF exposure by further applying reduction factors on the already conservative reference levels . For EMF exposure to the general public, the ICNIRP applied reduction factors of 50 and 100 for frequencies below and above 6 GHz, respectively; whereas for occupational exposure, the reduction factors of 10 and 2 were applied for frequencies below and above 6 GHz, respectively. Measurements have shown that EMF levels significantly drop as the distance from the antenna increases. Hence, more stringent restrictions have been put in place for public exposure compared to occupational exposure where the exposed persons are adults who are trained and aware of the potential risks.
After reviewing and assessing many controlled studies and peer reviewed research works, the World Health Organization (WHO) through the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that RF EMF radiation is possibly carcinogenic to humans, and classified it as Group 2B – a category used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and animals . Aloe vera, pickled vegetables and petrol belong in the same group as RF radiation. In comparison, red meat belongs in a group with a slightly higher risk of being carcinogenic. Yes, you read that correctly!
Myth 2: We Are Already Exposed to Dangerous “New” 5G Radiation and That Is Causing Strange Effects
The Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) reports that, currently, only about 12% of all LTE (4G) operators globally have deployed new 5G services, with only 73 of them in 41 countries offering a 3GPP 5G-compliant service . In most countries, the first 5G mobile will use “new” pioneer frequencies at bands around 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz in the immediate term, with further deployment in the 26 to 28 GHz bands coming in the next few years . In fact, many recent 5G deployments, such as in the UK, are what is called non-standalone mode (NSA), whereby the mobile phone needs a full 4G service and the 5G component is for the provision of higher date rates and other services on the 3.5 GHz band.
It is important to point out that initial debate in the last few years about 5G was related to the introduction of 26 – 28 GHz millimetre wave (mmWave) to carry 5G services and data. The very large bandwidth available in this band makes it suitable for high data rates services and achieving tens of Gbps data rates, which will be required to address the continuing increase in demand for mobile data. However, signals in the mmWave frequency range do not travel far, unlike in lower bands, thus requiring a dense deployment of mmWave cells for coverage, compared to sub-6 GHz bands currently in widespread deployment.
Given its high deployment cost, mmWave deployment is most suitable for dense urban areas with very high data rate requirements (demand and supply), which explains why it accounted for only 14 deployments globally as at January 2020 . In addition to constituting a tiny fraction of global 5G deployments, research has shown that the effect of RF EMF exposure in the mmWave band is mainly superficial and a significant amount of the energy is reflected away by the skin . Moreover, mmWaves are far below the frequency of ordinary sunlight, which is in the 430 – 750 THz range.
Myth 3: 5G Can Result in Pandemics
This claim couldn't be further from the truth and it is increasingly being pushed by conspiracy theorists with dangerous ramifications far beyond the telecom industry. Such false claims could lead to public health and safety being endangered as the public might stop listening to the advice of health experts, especially during disease outbreaks.
The recent Covid-19 and 5G theory lacks any credible evidence or reasoned argument. For example, we have seen an intense outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran, a country that has not introduced any form of 5G service. In contrast, South Korea with one the largest 5G deployments, has been able to effectively contain the outbreak by using public health interventions.
As mentioned earlier, 5G operates on low-band (700 MHz), mid-band (3.5 GHz) and high-band (mmWave) for coverage and capacity reasons, and all these frequency bands had been in use for other services prior to incorporation and design for 5G radios and standardisation.
The 700 MHz frequency spectrum has traditionally been used for TV broadcast but it is now being re-farmed to be used for 5G. Although TV transmitters are mostly situated on hilltops far away from the public, their transmit power is stronger than cellular base stations by orders of magnitude for wider coverage, since TV receivers do not have to transmit signals back to the tower. Even with their very high RF transmit powers, TV antennas still operate within RF EMF limits. Furthermore, the mid-band has been used for wireless broadband services and is the band of choice in Europe. The mid-band is very close to 4G frequency of 2.6 GHz and between the two Wi-Fi frequencies of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz; whereas the mmWave band is already in use for earth exploration services using satellites.
Myth 4: 5G Is for Surveillance Only
It is fictitious to claim that surveillance is the sole reason for deploying 5G networks; all previous generations of mobile systems were capable enough to do that and there was no need for 5G. The fact is that those networks were technically limited in supporting emerging use cases of wireless connectivity. Hence, 5G was born out of the need for increased data rates, lower latency, massive connectivity, energy efficiency and high mobility to support verticals such as healthcare, education, manufacturing, agriculture, public safety and transportation, among many others.
Obviously, every technology has its pros and cons, and 5G, with its improved connectivity offering, will likely be no different; but having capability does not mean it will also be used negatively. There are adequate regulations in place to safeguard our rights. The internet, for example, has significantly contributed to the advancement of society but it is also used for illegal activities. This does not mean we should discard the Internet with all its benefits because a few bad elements take advantage of it to commit crime.
Myth 5: There Is No One to Regulate and Control 5G
This is easy to debunk. At the international level, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nation organisation, which is the oldest international organisation, coordinates the global use of radio spectrum and the development of technical standards. It has a dedicated Study Group Question addressing “human exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from information and communication technologies (ICTs)”. There are also national and regional telecommunications regulatory bodies that oversee the operation of mobile networks according to laid down guidelines and rules. Moreover, the European Council recommendation (1999/519/EC) and a directive (2013/35/EU) set out minimum health and safety requirements regarding RF EMF exposure based on ICNIRP limits. The UK has also adopted ICNIRP limits and all mobile network operators are committed to complying with the safety limits .
In the UK, Ofcom conducted test measurements on 22 5G locations in 10 cities and the highest EMF exposure level observed from 5G bands was only 0.039% of the reference limit – it is worthy of note that all 5G deployments in the UK are in the mid-band . In addition to telecom regulatory bodies, some national environmental protection agencies conduct frequent compliance testing to ensure that mobile network operators transmit within prescribed safety limits.
Myth 6: There Is No Mechanism to Reduce Exposure to 5G Radiation
There have been several international research projects, such as the World Health Organisation’s International EMF Project  and the European Union-funded “Low EMF Exposure Future Networks (LEXNET)” project , that have focused on evaluating EMF and finding novel solutions to reducing exposure from mobile systems.
There is a direct correlation between transmission power and EMF exposure; fortunately, mobile communication systems over the generations have increasingly become more energy efficient with lower transmission power requirements. Moreover, mobile communication systems are already being designed to minimise EMF exposure and 5G solutions will be able to incorporate novel solutions like beamforming and base station sleeping. Researchers have also evaluated EMF exposure in mobile networks through city-wide deployment of EMF dosimeters that provide insights into EMF-aware future networks .
Although there are no established health risks associated with exposure to RF EMF radiation, the WHO has recommended the adoption of the precautionary principle, which stresses the adoption of simple, low-cost measures to minimize EMF exposure. These measures include the use of (wired) hands-free devices, limiting the usage of mobile phones especially among children and adoption of alternatives to wireless technology, among others.
In the absence of any evidence of adverse health effects on mobile technology on human health (in use for past 4 decades) and other radio technologies over a century, it is safe to conclude that the radiation levels are well regulated and they will continue to be regulated tightly in the future. The research to fully assay any public concerns about this will be a welcome addition especially RF EMF radiation from mobile communication systems, particularly in the mmWave band. There should also be additional support for research on further reducing EMF exposure levels from current and future mobile communication systems. Furthermore, public sensitisation campaigns on RF EMF exposure and the benefits of mobile communications are needed, especially prior to the deployment of new base stations. These recommendations, we believe, are essential in dousing public concerns and for having a better understanding of how RF EMF radiation interacts with the human body.
Therefore, we conclude that 5G communication is for good! Engineers and scientists should recognise the requirement for continuous review and debate on the physical, social, and environmental impacts of all technology, and the need to review all and any new information that is presented in a factual and scientific way - just like we do for any other technology around us.
- Y. A. Sambo, F. Heliot, and M. A. Imran, “A Survey and Tutorial of Electromagnetic Radiation and Reduction in Mobile Communication Systems,” IEEE Communications Surveys and Tutorials, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 790– 802, 2015.
- ICNIRP, “Guidelines for Limiting Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (100 kHz to 300 GHz),” Health Phys, vol. 118, no. 5, pp. 483 – 524, 2020
- International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), “IARC Classifies Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans,” Press Release No. 208, May 2011.
- Global Mobile Suppliers Association, “LTE & 5G Market Statistics: Global Snapshot”, Tech. Rep., April 2020
- Ofcom, “Enabling 5G in the UK”, The Office of Communications, Tech. Rep., Mar. 2018
- M. Dano (Jan. 2020), "Here's Why It Might Be Time to Worry About mmWave 5G". [Online]. Available: https://www.lightreading.com/mobile/5g/heres-why-it-might-be-time-to-worry-about-mmwave-5g/a/d-id/756706
- Public Health England (May 2019), “Guidance Mobile phone base stations: radio waves and health”. [Online]. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mobile-phone-base-stations-radio-waves-and-health/mobile-phone-base-stations-radio-waves-and-health
- Ofcom, “Electromagnetic Field (EMF) measurements near 5G mobile phone base stations”, The Office of Communications, Tech. Rep., Feb. 2020 (updated 17 April 2020)
- The International EMF Project, http://www.who.int/entity/peh-emf/en/
- Low EMF Exposure Future Networks (LEXNET), http://www.lexnet.fr/
- M. A. Imran, F. Heliot and Y. A. Sambo, (Eds.) (2019) Low Electromagnetic Emission Wireless Network Technologies: 5G and Beyond. Institution of Engineering and Technology: Stevenage
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