Judging from the enthusiastic reception of 5G technology by governments and industry, we are on the verge of a technological revolution. Initially introduced to help wireless networks cope with ever-increasing data traffic on their networks, 5G will (its proponents claim) lead to game-changing innovations such as remote surgery, control of driverless vehicles and much more.
5G, eventually slated to replace present-day 3G and 4G cellular telephone networks, promises to speed up the rate of data transfer by 100 times or more, greatly reduce latency (time between receipt of a signal by a cellular base station and its response) and allow cellular networks to manage far more wireless-connected devices than presently possible.
5G, however, has become intensely controversial in many locations, with citizens’ groups, and a few scientists, expressing concerns about the possible health effects of radio-frequency (RF) energy transmitted by 5G base stations. Public opposition appears to focus on two characteristics of 5G networks:
First, 5G systems will operate in several frequency bands, including one that is slightly below (and will eventually extend into) the millimeter-wave part of the RF spectrum that extends from 30 to 300 GHz. While millimeter waves have not heretofore been used for cellular communications, they have been used for many other applications, including airport security scanners, anticollision radar for automobiles, and to link present-day cellular base stations.
Public discussions appear to conflate 5G with millimeter-wave communication. In fact, many 5G networks will operate at frequencies close to those used by present cellular networks, and some may use millimeter waves to handle high data traffic where needed.
Second, 5G systems will rely on a multitude of “small cells” mounted close to subscribers, often on utility poles running along public streets. These small cells will incorporate “smart” antennas that transmit multiple beams (up to 64 with present designs, eventually more), which can be independently steered to individual subscribers. They operate at much lower power levels than “macro” cells used by present systems, which are typically located on tops of buildings in urban areas.
In the long run, these will be supplemented by pico cells that are mounted inside buildings, operating at still lower power levels. The prospects of a dramatic increase in the number of sources transmitting RF signals is undoubtedly disquieting to many citizens, regardless of the actual health risks as understood by health agencies.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made the introduction of 5G a high priority, paring back some regulations and giving local communities less control over the placement of small cells (although the issue has been in litigation and this may change somewhat). Thus, communities are facing the introduction of new infrastructure incorporating what is, to the public, new and unfamiliar technology. Engineers, for their own part, are inclined to regard 5G as an extension of present (3G, 4G) cellular technology.