5G – Exploring the safety limits and addressing the myths

5G is the next generation of mobile technology that will transform the role of mobile connectivity in society, enabling changes in the way we live and do business. With enhanced mobile broadband, which will bring better experiences for smartphone users, 5G offers a real opportunity for people, business and the world at large to be more connected, smarter and more sustainable.

In technical terms 5G delivers improved data rates (100 times faster than current), supporting virtually instant access to services and applications, with network latency significantly reduced to 1-10ms.  In addition, it offers network slicing technology making it possible to dedicate a unique part of a 5G network for a particular service.

Whilst the value proposition of 5G is never currently off the news, safety questions sometimes arise when new technology is brought to the market and it is, therefore, important to address some of the misunderstandings.

In respect of radio signals, 5G is similar to current wireless technologies and covered by national and international safety guidelines that protect all members of the public and the environment. The European Commission points out that these ‘strict and safe’ guidelines include all the frequencies both currently used and under consideration for 5G. Many initial 5G deployments are at frequencies close to 3.5 GHz and are similar to existing 3G/4G mobile networks and Wi-Fi. To achieve higher capacity 5G can also use higher frequencies that are used today by the mobile and satellite industries for other purposes. These frequencies are known as millimetre-waves (mmW or mmWaves) and they are also covered by safety guidelines.

5G will make more use of smart antenna technologies (such as massive multiple input multiple output – mMIMO) that deliver radio signals where they are needed. Conventional antennas provide coverage similar to how a floodlight illuminates a wide area. However, these smart antennas act like a flashlight providing coverage where it is needed, reducing unwanted signals, increasing capacity and improving efficiency. As we move to increased digitalisation of cities, this can only be realised through a greater density of mobile network sites. The increased use of small cells mounted on streetlights or inside buildings for both 4G and 5G will allow this to happen. There exist harmonised principles for small cell compliance with safety limits.

So what does the research say and who is monitoring deployment?

There is a large body of research on the radio signals used by mobile technologies. The scientific evidence is continuously monitored by independent expert groups to ensure that safety guidelines remain valid. A 2018 report from the ITU, the UN telecommunications agency, concluded that adoption of more restrictive limits increases public concern and potentially severely affects the ability to deploy mobile infrastructure to address the growing data traffic demand.

The Australian health regulator has warned against ‘misinformation’ being spread about 5G networks and states ‘contrary to some claims, there are no established health effects from the radio waves that the 5G network uses.’ This has also been the consistent message from authorities in many countries, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

International technical standards exist for the assessment of 5G networks and Telstra reports that testing of their 5G network with commercial devices in real-world setting shows levels similar to 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi and in many cases around 1,000 times below the safety limits.

Measurements on 4G small cells by the French spectrum agency found that levels in nearby areas did not change significantly and remained well below the safety guidelines. Small cells also increased the data rates available to users.

So research tells us that there are no established health effects and 5G trials demonstrate that the overall levels of radio signals in the community remain low and well below international safety guidelines. It is, therefore, concerning that the public could be misled by unverified claims of 5G causing the death of birds (false), damage to trees (false), harm to firefighters (false) or interference with weather forecasting (false).

As we move into the 5G era, there is an important role for national authorities to communicate accurate and reliable information. Policymakers should also take steps to streamline the conditions for efficient 5G deployment by setting a national mobile network deployment policy that simplifies planning procedures for small cells, improves operator access to public sites for antenna siting, and establishes uniform radiofrequency exposure rules based on the international safety guidelines.

For more information read the GSMA fact sheet Safety of 5G Mobile Networks and our report 5G, the IoT and Wearable Devices: What do the new uses of wireless technologies mean for radio frequency exposure?