What the F is 5G? What is new, and what are the risks?

Now for something not Covid-19, which is a rarity lately! A different topic for this blog, but 5G came up in a recent conversation, and what I thought I ‘knew’ about 5G was:

  • significantly higher mobile data rates were possible (true)
  • 5G is based on higher frequency radio than 4G etc (false)
  • 5G works for far more people even in a crowded spaces (true)
  • towers for 5G must always be close in order us 5G (false)
  • 5G data rates could potentially match/replace fibre optic cable (false)

As you can see, turns out what I had thought prior to research, was all a collection of misunderstandings. From what I had heard, it seemed to be there was revolution taking place in mobile networks, and 5G meant giving up much of what we have now, all for very little gain. If the case for moving to 5G is questionable, then is there a reason for the conspiracy theories? So I thought I should become more informed, and this page is the result. There has been a lot of confusing information about 5G.

When I started looking, I found conspiracy theories and discussion in complete ignorance of 5G actual technology, and alternatively, deep technical discussion on details of the technology that can seem biased towards selling why we all need 5G, with its wonderful technology and ultra fast speed. So I looked to distil what seemed relevant to me about 5G itself and real health risks. This page is the result, and perhaps others may also find the content relevant.

Key Points:

What is 5G? (NR)

What changes from 4G?

What I had heard was that 5G uses higher frequency communication. This is misleading. 5G does not need new frequencies at all, although they are part of the standard. Higher frequencies, have minuses as well as pluses, and are only suitable for special circumstances. The reality is 5G adds higher frequencies for such special uses, but they are a part of an overall system the mostly delivers slight improvements on what is done already, with very similar frequencies to what are used already.

It turns out 5G is an updated radio system, even officially named New Radio (NR), that provides for 3 different frequency ranges:

  1. Low Band 5G
    • 600-700 MHz, and lower than some 4G frequencies
    • the original analogue phones were
    • optional for networks, but mandatory for phones
      • 5G coverage requires either low-band or mid-band
      • not all locations, nor even all countries will provide low-band
    • low band has best range (see frequency and range, below)
      • best for low population density areas, or few users of 5G
    • speed:
      • from 4G speed to 5x faster than 4G (20Mbps to 200Mbps)
    • coverage per tower
      • can be 100s of sq kilometres
  2. Mid Band 5G (“Sub 6”)
    • 2.5-3.6 GHz, similar to microwave frequencies used by current WiFi and Bluetooth
    • up to 2.5 GHz is already in use with 4G networks
    • optional for networks, but mandatory for phones
      • 5G coverage requires either low-band or mid-band
    • mandatory for networks as well as for 5G phones
    • speed:
      • typically from 100 to 700 Mbps
      • up to 2Gbps (in theory)
    • range per tower:
      • 10 sq kilometres
      • (3km x 3km)
  3. High Band 5G (mmWave)
    • 25-39 GHz, and potentially even higher frequencies in future
    • optional for networks and optional for phones
    • also known as ‘mmWave‘ or millimetre wave frequencies
      • (wavelength at 30GHz is approximately 10 millimetres)
    • this high frequency band is the new frequency add with 5G
      • very high speed, but only very short distance
    • speed:
    • support for far more people using mobiles in a given area
    • unavailable even in most most countries with 5G, until at least 2021
    • range per tower
      • less than 1sq kilometre, poor penetration though walls
      • sometimes 0.01sq kilometres
      • at the extreme, less coverage area than home WiFi

The addition of the high band frequencies is not the only new feature of 5G, but it is the only physical difference. Other changes do not change the radiation in any was so if there is any new threat to health, it can only due to the addition of the new ‘high band’ frequencies.

The advances of 5G are:

  1. more computing power can be assumed for high end mobiles on 2020 compared to the release of 4G around 2010 (all bands)
  2. combining more frequencies in parallel (medium and high bands)
  3. using higher frequencies that allowing sending data faster (high band)

So the benefits are that use of the three bands provides an update on how all data can be sent through improved use of the low band, together with the ability to provide for supporting extremely fast data, even in extremely crowded areas, through the use of the medium and high bands.

Can 5G do it all?

Prior to this review, back when I thought 5G was all about the new ‘mmWave’ very frequency spectrum, it seemed impossible for 5G to replace 4G.

The short answer is: Yes. 5G can do it all, so eventually all previous systems could be turned off. By using the right combination of low, medium and high bands, every scenario addressed by previous generations can be addressed, with speed improvements and new ability to also hand extremely high mobile data traffic areas.

5G Misrepresented?

To hear they hype, 5G seems all about super fast speed, and the new high frequencies. While it is true that most hyped new feature, is the peak speeds, achievable with high band mmWave high frequency micro cells, so mm wave attracts the most demonstrations, and the most attention.

As a result, it is easy to get the impression that 5G is only the mm Wave, and therefore 5G uses only high frequency, very short range ‘towers’. The reality is that 5G these high band ‘towers’ will only be deployed in a limited number of locations, and for most people, 5G will be about the improved access through new algorithms using medium band towers. The higher frequencies do not even travel through walls, and are therefore of little use in delivering 5G to households. ‘Millimetre wave’ is a new added feature for special circumstances, when the impression given by the headlines is that 5G is ‘millimetre wave’.

In summary, 5G is an mostly an update, making use of improved computing power of the chipsets in mobile devices through most sophisticated encoding of data with the same frequencies in use as before. Apart from the rare, extremely high density environments where where mm wave is in use, 5G is an update an unification of what has gone before.

5G vs WiFi

If you check the highest speeds claimed for 5G, you may notice 5G can be faster than home WiFi. This makes it sound like either you should replace your home WiFi with personal ‘micro-cell’ of 5G goodness, or that perhaps every device in your home should always be connected to a 5G network in place of your WiFi at home?

Note the following:

  • the highest speed 5G used mm Wave signals that provide less area coverage than even home WiFi and do not pass through walls
    • even with your very own cell at home, WiFi would provide better coverage
    • 5G from cell towers outside you home can never deliver these fastest possible speeds
  • WiFi is also advancing
    • although WiFi6 has only just started, WiFi7 will arrive before the full promise of 5G is realised
    • WiFi7 in practice should be faster than 5G (up to 30 Gbps)
5G (or any ‘G’) vs fibre optic cable

Many people have fibre optic based home internet that delivers data significantly slower than the 10Gbps that 5G can potentially deliver. This can give the impression that perhaps radio based signals have the potential to outperform fibre optical networks.

Any such impression is misguided. Radio cannot does not have the potential to match fibre optic.

Consider the physics. There are range reasons:

Higher Frequency: With radio, the higher the frequency, the faster the data. With 5G the lower band has far lower maximum data rates than higher frequency mmWave band. Fibre optic uses visible light, which consists of photons 1,000 times higher frequency than mmWave. Of course the potential is faster.

Dedicated Transmission: Radio is sent through the air, along with any other photons bouncing around in that same air. Background radio signals can interfere with the signal, and when sending two signals on the same frequency, they would clearly interfere with each other. Further, there may be obstacles in that air such as walls or other things blocking the signal. Fibre optic cable has only the light photons specifically put into the individual fibre, no interference. Two, or even two thousand, fibre optic cables can be right next to each other, and still no signal sent through the fibre has to deal with interference. Further, obstacles are eliminated, by drilling through the obstacle and feeding the fibre through,

Range: Radio signals spread out. While It is possible to send a laser signal that does not spread out, then the receiver must be in one fixed position to receive the signal, and that signal would be lost when the beam is interrupted. So radio signals spread out and get weaker with distance. This means to send a mmWave signal a long distance, would require a repeater station receiving and retransmitting the signal every 100 meters, and each repeater would introduce a significant delay. With fibre optic, the signal does not spread out within the fibre, allowing far longer signals for a given frequency.

So fibre based internet can be slower than 5G, but fibre optic transmission is not the limitation. The main limitation is the speed of the internet connection at the other end of the fibre, or in some cases, the electrical technology also used in the signal path. In any event, the limit of speeds that can be sent over optical fibre is thousands of times beyond the limit of the ability to send data by mmWave radio signals.

Why a 5G network needs fibre

Wireless technology only delivers the data available from the internet connection at the tower to devices connected to the tower. Consider a street with 10 towers. What provides the data to the street? If each tower can deliver 10 Gbps to someone on that tower, than the connection to the street requires 10×10 = 100GHz speed. How do you get the data to the street connection and then connect the towers? Even if there is a dedicated connection from the street to each tower, those connection would require 10 5G signals all at once travelling beyond the distance possible with mmWave, yet needing the speed of mmWave. Further the signal to the street needs to be 10x faster than mmWave and have the same problems of distance on an even larger scale! Then consider 10 streets! Clearly, something at least 100x faster than mmWave, and capable of sending data longer distances is needed in order to connect all the towers to the internet.

Of course, the solution is currently fibre optic cable, and that is how the data arrives at 5G towers. In future we may find another technology, but today the only way to provide even higher speed network connecting the towers is by fibre optical cable.

What Problem does 5G Solve?

5G provides faster data in areas where data is currently slowest:

  1. improved coverage in less populated areas served by low band towers
  2. fast data and no overloading in crowded spaces that overload 4G

I feel for most of us 4G ,when all is going well, does all we need most of the time, so it may be rare we notice the improvements. However, by their nature, crowded areas or spaces can have a lot of people, so each time that problem is solved a lot of people can be thankful. If 5G just allows for the best experience of 4G, but far more universally, then that would be a good thing.

The biggest problem solved, is the ability to deliver really high speeds and cope with intense traffic when required. The problem solved is a single system can do all we do now, and with improvements, and address these extra needs of really high speed and high traffic where required.

Now we could have an entire football stadium packed with fans who are all streaming videos on their mobile phones. It may sound silly to have all those fans not wanting to watch the match instead of streaming videos…. but then I have seen an entire table of people out together at a restaurant all using their phones instead of talking to one another so it could become for people in stadiums to be streaming videos.

Perhaps a better use of the ability of 5G to deliver high speed internet to all in a relatively small area would be for something like a meeting of international representatives who could see their own live feed during the meeting.

5G Costs

For mobile device makers, 5G is a new feature to try and get consumers to update what might otherwise be seen as perfectly adequate mobile devices. At this time, 5G makes the latest devices more expensive. The initial implementations require new ‘modem’ integrated circuits, despite established 4G modems being integrated within mobile chip sets. This means more cost and more power consumption, for a capability of little use right now.

A Brief Review: Mobile/Cell Phone History

The generations in summary:

  • Before Cell Phones
    • only possible if used by almost no-one
  • 1G: Cell Phones
    • mobile phones that worked for a larger number of people
  • 2G: Everyone could have a phone
  • 3G: We could all also send small amounts of data
  • 4G: Mobile Internet, except in places that are two crowded
  • 5G: Slightly faster mobile internet, even when its crowded
Mobile Phones Before ‘Cell’ Phones: 1940s to 1980s

The first ‘car phones’ were two way radios that provided a connection to a base station, and from the base station to the regular phone network from as early as 1946. As with also two way radios, ‘walkie talkies’, and taxi or police radios, these systems worked with a fixed ‘other end’ to the radio like that needed to be in range. The longer the range of the radio signal, the further apart the two points could be, and typical frequencies of between 30 and 300 MHz provided tens of kilometres of range.

CB radio, which became popular following hobby use being allowed from 1975, worked on the principle that instead of communicating with the ‘base’, people could communicate with anyone in range. HF (High Frequency) of approximately 27MHz, and VHF of close to 477 MHz are used, and communication takes place on ‘channels’. Practices evolved of having identified channels where people discover others in range and exchange greetings. For a conversation, people could agree to switch to a less used channel.

1G: Early Analogue Cell Phones, 1979 to 2008.

Of course, ‘1G’ was never called ‘1G’ at the time, just as people in the year 4BCE did not use the current calendar. It was just ‘cellular’. First, divide the area to be provided with coverage into ‘cells’. Then place one tower in each cell and assign each tower one of a range o ‘main channels’. Think CB Radio, and the concept of the ‘channel’ where people ‘met’ and could agree to switch to another channel for their conversation. Add a system with automatic checking for the the best signal available from the ‘meet channels’ and being allocated a ‘conversation channel’ for incoming or outgoing calls, you have the basis for a ‘cell’ phone system. Each radio base phone need only communicate with the nearest cell, to check for incoming calls and be allocated conversation channels.

This evolution of the basic two-way radio system was first commercially introduced after year of development in 1979, and used frequencies between 850MHz and 950Mhz depending on the country. Slightly higher frequency than used for city wide systems such as taxis etc., allows for more calls at the expense of using multiple towers due to the shorter range.

I believe all analogue mobile systems has ceased operations by 2008.

2G: Digital Mobile Phones, GSM and CDMA, 1990-2024?

Just as the CD had represented sound digitally for music, GSM and CDMA represented voice digitally. Using digital allowed communications could be more reliable, and allow far more conversations per tower. Both technologies added the revolution of SMS text messages, but otherwise, there was a digital protocol that sent voice calls encoded digitally, not digital data.

There were two systems, partially because the problem of a ‘global’ system was not seen as the main problem for the large countries that introduced CDMA, while the Scandinavian countries who were leaders with GSM (Global System for Mobiles) were smaller countries needing a system interoperable between countries from the outset.

CDMA was first introduced in 1988 and GSM was first introduced in 1991. 2G networks have been shutdown are widely different dates. Most are were closed prior to 2020, but rare pockets are planned to continue until 2024, while Japan and South Korea for example shut down 2G networks as early as 2010.

2G used the same frequencies as ‘1G’ as digital technologies was the answer at the time solving overcrowding. ‘2G’ was again not called ‘2G’, but rather ‘digital’, and when first updated, the updates were called ‘GPRS’ (General Packet Radio Service), and ‘EDGE’ (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) not something ‘G’. These updates became referred to as ‘2.5G’ (GPRS) and ‘2.75G’ (EDGE), once 3G was conceived.

2G could be used to send data, but over a system designed for very small amounts of data based on technology designed for SMS messages.

The frequencies were generally the same as 1G, between 850 and 950 MHz.

3G: Mobile Data, 2003 …?

3G was first launched in 2003 and in 40 countries by 2007. This was the first technology using the ‘G’ labelling at the time of introduction. 3G was all about ‘mobile data’. The internet had become a ‘thing’ and being able to access date from anywhere was seen as useful. when it was introduced. Data rates were initially as high as 0.144Mbps, but later updates reached 7.2 Mbps, and with HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access, released in 2008) reached 42 Mbps.

Frequencies now included 1800, 1900 and 2100 MHz.

4G: Internet Protocol, 2010….?

4G was first launched in 2009, but it was not until 2015 that most developed countries had good 4G coverage.

Before 4G, phones were devices designed for phones calls. Data capabilities had been built on top of the digital phone system. 4G changed things. 4G phones were implemented the mobile internet, and now phones calls were voice data sent over the internet.

Data using 4G technology has reached speeds of 100Mbps, and uses frequencies of 700Mhz through to 3600 MHz (3.6Ghz).

What are the risks?

The Covid-19 correlation!

Given that the most significant new capability of 5G is the ability to provide high speed data in very crowded areas, it is logical that networks will focus on extremely crowded locations for the initial 5G installations. Crowded locations are also locations where Covid-19 will spread. But is there a connection, beyond sometimes both appearing in crowded locations?

Covid-19 is clearly caused by a virus, and a virus that is either new, or is new to humans. Further, it is clear that Covid-19 has caused significant outbreak in countries like Brazil, well before those countries had 5G specific phone towers. In fact, as the ‘new’ radiation is the mmWave part of 5G, even most countries with 5G, such as Canada, Australia or Europe and the UK have no millimetre wave 5G yet, or even ready to launch in 2020. But it is also logical that the same locations best suited to initial installations and demonstrations of 5G, are densely populated areas likely to coincide with outbreaks of Covid-19. There the is the expression, correlation is not causation. However, correlation is logical in this case, because of third factor causation.

risks common to all radio frequency communication

See the background on electromagnetic radiation, but the short answer is no one has discovered any risks from the radiation, and they have look very hard. The second part of that ‘short answer’ is there do appear to be significant risks to society itself from all the data we consume. It is important to remember that radio waves are the same basic fundamental particle as light, but at lower energy levels. The known risks from electromagnetic radiation all cease all occur only at frequencies higher than those of visible light, otherwise known as ‘ionising radiation’, and of over 1,000 times higher frequency than the ‘non–ionising‘ used or proposed for cell phones.

Extensive studies have been undertaken to find risks from all forms of non-ionising radiation, and non have found any links to health risks, even when at far higher levels than those generated by mobile phones.

Given the compensation costs that would result from telecom operators running frequencies that had known risks, or were even insufficiently tested against risk, the probability of problems arising seem extremely low. In fact, if the risks were not proven to be low, the liability insurance costs for networks would be insurmountable.

new risks presented by 5G

5G does add new high frequencies. As discussed here 5G is not primarily based on the new high ‘mm Wave’ frequencies, and practical use is limited to very specific environments. However, there are still new, higher and thus greater risk, frequencies being introduced.

how to mitigate any new radiation risks

If we look at explanations of the use of 5G, you will notice that the ability to make phone calls is rarely even mentioned. Yet phone calls are when the organism of greatest concern, out brains, are normally closest to the source of radiation.

The effects of any radiation decrease with the square of distance. 10x further away and the level of radiation is 100x lower. If there is any genuine concern regarding the radiation, then using earphones, or headphones, or speaker phone mode, will reduce radiation risks and far outweigh any new risks introduced by the new higher frequencies.

Yes, Bluetooth earphones or headphones do also emit radiation, but in the long proven 2.4Ghz band, and at extremely low levels compared to cell phones. The signal from a phone has to travel all the way to the nearest tower, while the signal from Bluetooth only travels a few metres.

the real risks: experiments on humanity?

It can seem that introducing new technologies such as mobile phones are experiments with the whole world as guinea pigs. However, there are extensive trials and studies completed on any potential radiation effects. What is far less researched, or even able to the studied against a control group, is the effects of the information communicated. There have been concerns that a complete childhood exposed to violent video games may create a predisposition to commit violent crime. But as far a media being able to influence people thoughts, it is not just theory, it is accepted as real. Social media does use the term ‘influencer’ as some form of irony.

With now have whole generations exposed to a flood of information. Information sources which cause addiction, or compulsion to just keep watching, flourish and are rewarded. Those that provide the information and result in people going back to their lives die out. Previously, entire nations received the same information. Information that was designed to viewed by the entire nation. Now, with everyone receiving personalised news, social media, and even search results, all information is designed to reinforce and exaggerate existing views. Narrowcast disunity. The polarisation possible in a state where each person has an continuous stream of information ‘in their pocket’ that is individually tweaked by high tech artificial intelligence to reinforce existing views will logically create more divided societies than ever possible in the past. What type of influence does this create on the human mind as a collective consequence? Recent political division, and division of society corelating with such information shows are more significant correlation to advances in mobiles than any physical health outcomes.

It seems quite clear that the greatest health risk, is to risk to the mental health of society.

Conclusion: is 5G a risk, or a ‘must buy’?

The only new risks related to 5G itself are all about mmWave 5G, which is only useful in specific circumstances, and not even provided on many current 5G phones. If there are any risks, they should rarely be encountered. If a phone/network combination allows turning off high-band or mmWave 5G, this would realistically eliminate even the slightest of risks from 5G. There will come a time when choosing a 5G phone delivers real benefits, but for most people, it will take many year for that time to come.

Generally, 5G is incremental rather than world changing, with the only new element being from the rare exposure to mmWave, which has no identified actual risks. Probably the biggest real risk is that there will be incrementally more mobile data, feeding the type of opinion polarisation that results in conspiracy theories about 5G and almost everything else.

Generally it would make sense not to buy into 5G until it is an integrated part of all mobile chipsets, which may occur in around another years time, when hopefully Covid-19 will be less of an issue and crowded venues where Covid-19 makes the biggest difference may again appeal. Recommendation, do not buy a new device just to get 5G unless is solves what you have clearly identified as a problem for you.

Appendix:

Background moved here

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