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5G & Health: Nothing to do with COVID-19

By

Richard Griffiths

Last September I wrote an entry in the Huawei Blog explaining in logical, rational terms the facts about the inflammatory Internet scare stories about 5G mobile technologies. I had hoped it would be the last word on the subject. But no. Over the last few weeks, people have been out destroying mobile phone masts. They have directly confronted telecoms employees, putting the lives of engineers at risks. Public figures with influence on mainstream broadcasts have given airtime to these loony stories. Therefore, it’s worth repeating and updating the messages or my original blog entry for the situation we are in right now.

It’s worth noting that correlation is not causation. For every apparent correlation (the UK has 5G and has COVID-19) there’s a glaring absence of correlation elsewhere (Singapore has yet to launch 5G and has had a recent spike in COVID-19 cases). But there’s one overwhelming argument that beats all others. This is not a matter of assurance. It is not a matter of an employee at a 5G manufacturer having an opinion. It is a matter of scientific fact: radio frequencies have nothing to do with human viruses therefore it’s not possible for 5G (or any generation of mobile technology) to have anything to do with the spread of COVID-19 (or any other virus that may affect us).

Nope, no viruses here

What You Can Do

We all have a role to play. You can demonstrate your responsibility by not sharing such messages and videos on social media and refusing to give them the oxygen of publicity. You can raise formal complaints to broadcasters and regulatory bodies such as the UK’s OFCOM whenever these conspiracy theories are aired unchallenged. We all love a good scare story. Many people believe that if it’s on the Internet then there must be some truth in it. And locked down at home, many of us now have so much time on our hands that our need to interact with the outside world in any way at all can become overwhelming.

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

The videos, memes, and stories shared on social media linking 5G and COVID-19 fall in exactly the same basket of loony conspiracy theories as the earlier 5G scare story that claimed a flock of birds died in the Netherlands during an early trial of 5G.

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 is 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 Licensing 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 licensed 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 are 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, let’s 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:

  1. The larger the antenna
  2. The farther the signal can travel from the antenna
  3. The better the signal can go through walls to give coverage within buildings
  4. The 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 kilometers apart and new ones will be needed for 5G.

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.

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 licensed by your government regulator specifically for mobile communications and employing the latest power-efficient antennas without worry. And, whatever you do during this time of social isolation, act responsibly with the information you share with your friends and families because your actions can have consequences and this fictitious scare story has gone on for long enough.

Richard Griffiths is Vice President for the Huawei MSSD Consultant Office and a regular writer on Huawei Blog.

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