5G and Coronavirus have been trending in the last few days, with social media outlets rife with conspiracy theories about a possible connection between the novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the fifth generation of mobile communication systems (5G). To curtail the spread of misinformation and its potential to cause public harm, the record needs to be set straight. For the avoidance of doubt, there is no known correlation between COVID-19 and 5G.
For starters, COVID-19 is not airborne. Instead, experts believe it is transmitted through droplets – from saliva, coughing or sneezing. A Nature article published on April 2 shows that there is a school of thought that believes that the virus can be transported by aerosols , which are much tinier particles arising from exhaled air, potentially making COVID-19 airborne. The jury is still out on a consensus regarding the strength of the evidence to support airborne transmission, as they evaluate the infection among healthcare professionals who are most at risk of such airborne transmissions. Notice that the debate here is whether an infected person is able to transmit the disease through exhalation, NOT if the disease emanates from an external inorganic source such as a radio frequency transmitter.
So if 5G does not cause COVID-19, what causes it? Well, the WHO believes that the virus originated from a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where it was first reported. This follows genome sequencing of the COVID-19 virus which showed a 96% match with the coronavirus caused by bats. The seafood market in Wuhan is known to trade illegally in wild animals, including rabbits, bats and snakes. The WHO has declared the novel Coronavirus a pandemic since 11th March and several countries around the world have been locked down to curb the spread of the outbreak. Note that COVID-19 is not the only known coronavirus, but rather comes from a family of coronaviruses that are known to cause respiratory infections, including the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). This is all I have to say about the provenance of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, as there are a plethora of reliable sources for more information and the world is still trying to understand the virus.
The Hysteria around 5G
Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, there has been much excitement surrounding 5G. There was fear too, leading to several conspiracy theories regarding the health impact of the new technology. Some believe that it can damage DNA and cause cancer, kill animals, disrupt wildlife or is a weapon. Many of the theories are laughable, but to dispel concerns around 5G, here are a few things you need to know about 5G. For the record, there are no known health issues related to 5G operating within the safety limits set by each country. Any dangers that 5G may portend will also be present in 4G and the other previous generations of mobile standards. In fact, the 5G systems being rolled out across the world all operate below 6 GHz. To put this into perspective, most of them operate at frequencies lower than your WiFi router at home, though at higher power levels than your home Internet.
To begin with, 5G frequencies cannot cause cancer. This is because the suite of frequencies used in 5G emit radiations (radio frequency energy) that are non-ionising. This means that they do not have enough energy to cause changes to DNA (they are non-genotoxic) or strip electrons from atoms. Ionising radiations have enough energy to break chemical bonds, thus, they can charge or ionise atoms they come in contact with. The energies of ionising radiations are high enough to strip electrons from atoms or damage DNA in tissues, which is why gamma radiation is used in chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. Non-ionising radiations are found in the lower end of the electromagnetic spectrum and cover frequencies below the ultraviolet region of the spectrum (several THz). All radio frequencies are non-ionising, including those used in 5G. However, all electromagnetic frequencies, including extremely low frequencies (ELF) given off by power lines and electrical equipment, are potentially harmful, depending on the radiated amount and duration of exposure to the radiation. Prolonged exposure to electromagnetic radiation at high powers can cause burns, heatstroke or tissue damage (due to heating), even for RF frequencies (below 300 GHz). Some other possible effects of radiations are non-biological, such as causing interference with pacemakers, hearing aids, etc.
While fears around new technologies are not new (similar conspiracy theories surrounded the launch of every generation of mobile communication system), the suspicion reached a new crescendo with 5G due to the move towards ever higher frequencies, especially with the ratification of the millimeter wave frequencies (beyond 30 GHz) by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for use in 5G. The ITU is an agency of the United Nations responsible for developing technical standards for telecommunication (the entire ICT industry as a matter of fact). The body specifies the following spectrum bands for 5G: sub-1 GHz (700 MHz band), 1-6 GHz (mostly 3.5 GHz band) and above 6 GHz (26 GHz, 32 GHz, 66 GHz bands, etc).
At present, all the 5G systems being deployed around the globe operate under 6 GHz. In fact, most countries haven’t even auctioned any frequency bands above 6 GHz. While the US netted over $4 billion last month from the sale of some mm-wave spectrums, the UK will later this month auction spectrums in the 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz bands for 5G. No announcement has been made regarding when they will open the high-capacity mm-wave bands for auction. Nigeria has not sold any 5G spectrums. Though future developments will surely use the mm-wave frequencies, present deployments are still at the sub-6 GHz frequencies that have been in our daily use for decades. If 5G as currently deployed causes coronavirus, then we would have had the virus with us for years because we have been using these same frequencies for decades. Remember again that if COVID-19 were airborne over wireless radio frequencies, we would all have been infected by now.
To return to the potential harmful effects of 5G other than COVID-19, the frequencies people are worried about are the mm-wave frequencies – most paranoia surrounding 5G have focused on the 26 GHz or the 60 GHz bands. However, as pointed out already, even these frequencies produce non-ionising radiation so they cannot cause mutation of DNA cells or give cancer. Moreover, higher frequencies have less penetration powers, so they are not able to penetrate the body but are instead reflected (some will inevitably be absorbed, causing heating). A key component of 5G structure relies on this reflection at surfaces to provide coverage to ‘shadow zones’ that have no line of sight connection to the base station. Moreover, most mm-wave bands are envisaged for industrial 5G due to their much higher bandwidths (which will enable safety-critical applications) rather than for mobile use (you don’t necessarily need several Gbps speed for your mobile phone) because they travel only short distances. This may change in the future as the newly licensed spectrum becomes crowded or other needs arise.
An inverse relationship exists between frequency and coverage (range); the higher the frequency, the smaller the coverage area. However, the higher the frequency used, the more data you can carry (higher data rates). Thus, higher frequencies provide faster download speeds but travel shorter distances. As a result, the 700 MHz band will provide a very wide coverage, the 3.5 GHz band provides a compromise between data capacity and coverage whereas frequencies above 6 GHz have been dubbed the ‘super data layer’ that can deliver gigabit per second speeds. In Europe, the 26 GHz band (24.25-27.5 GHz) has been harmonised for use above 6 GHz for 5G. Having a smaller coverage area implies that many more 5G transmitters are required to keep everyone connected compared to 4G or other lower generations.
A concern I have seen raised by many is that the dense deployment of 5G antennas will put their health at risk. Remember that the much higher frequency mm-wave bands do not travel far. To ensure adequate coverage, base stations will need to be installed at much closer distances, referred to as network densification in network-speak. And since the base stations are very small, they can be installed on just about anything – lamp posts, traffic lights, etc – instead of towers and rooftops, hence, bringing the transmitters ever closer to people and their dwellings. But that is also an advantage; since the transmitter is close to the user, it requires only a very small power to reach him. The transmission power will be lowered to the minimum level required to serve users within a given coverage area. This is one of the techniques that makes 5G more energy-efficient than previous Gs of mobile systems. To address concerns surrounding network base station densification, I refer the reader to the regulatory bodies and independent watchdogs operating at different levels. Regulators (NCC in Nigeria, FCC in the US, OfCom in the UK, etc) at the international level and in each country set standards for exposure levels considered safe for public health. You can check these standards in your country. In many countries, it is possible to check the operating frequency and transmission power of base stations within your postcode (OfCom provides this service in the UK). You can also buy an EMF meter or handheld spectrum analyser to check this if you don’t trust the government or other independent bodies.
The International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP – icnirp.org) is an independent charity that provides factual information based on research about the potential dangers of electromagnetic radiation to health. They publish safe RF exposure limits for all radio frequencies. In addition, IEEE which is the largest professional engineering body in the world publishes RF safety limits from 0 Hz to 300 GHz through its IEEE International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety (ICES), including “the potential hazards of exposure of humans, volatile materials, and explosive devices to such energy”. Both the ICNIRP and ICES guidelines were updated in 2019, setting the limits of exposure to frequencies above 6 GHz even lower than previously outlined.
5G offers 3 promises; enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive machine type communications (mMTC) and ultra-reliable and low latency communications (URLLC). Current 5G services can only achieve the first promise which is related to being able to access higher download and upload speeds almost anywhere. mMTC is what is required to achieve the potentials of the Internet of Things (IoT) by providing coverage to billions of devices. URLLC relates to reliability and latency, two key components of safety-critical systems. When you hear URLLC, think of driverless cars; the latency needs to be exceptionally low because you want the car to receive instructions you send to it before it gets in an accident. Also, think of remote surgery – you surely do not want a patchy or sporadic network when life is at stake and a few milliseconds could make all the difference. Future deployments will unlock the true potentials of 5G through mMTC and URLLC. For now, the delay (latency) and reliability are not good enough for use in safety-critical systems.
You can find out more from the websites of the 3GPPP which develop protocols for these standards or from the bodies referred to in the article.