5G is speedy, but also risky

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment recently released a discussion document for 5G, the next generation cellular mobile network.

Among the issues raised in the document is how 5G will be rolled out in New Zealand and what the societal impacts will be. In particular, there are health concerns about the increased number of cell towers – estimated to be double the current number – that will be required for a 5G network.

We saw a glimpse of what 5G hopes to deliver last week, when the first “live trial” was conducted by Spark.

Communications Minister Clare Curran was the first to test it. She got a download speed of 9.3 gigabits per second, which equates to 9,300 megabits per second. That’s 46 times the maximum speed I can get on my current ultra-fast broadband package at home, which clocks in at a measly 200 megabits per second.

What’s more, 5G could end up being twice as fast as the speed Curran got. The specifications for 5G technology, which are still being worked on internationally, aim to reach a peak data rate of 20 Gbits per second. That would be a twenty fold increase from the current 4G generation.

As well as being super fast, 5G will have much lower latency – which means no delays or freezes when streaming high bandwidth media like videos and games.

5G is being marketed as the required infrastructure for next-generation technology. The MBIE paper highlights “self-driving cars, increased use of robotics and industry automation, and massive machine type communications (the internet of things).”

But hold your horses, this 5G future won’t arrive in New Zealand until at least 2020. Plus, there are a couple of contentious issues that must be addressed before 5G is approved.

The first is will New Zealand have a single national 5G network, or will the main telecommunications companies each roll out their own 5G network?

With 4G, three companies built their own networks: Spark, Vodafone and 2Degrees. All have indicated they wish to do the same with 5G, an approach the government favours. “There would have to be strong public policy reasons to prevent this occurring,” the MBIE paper notes.

While there is enough spectrum to do three separate 5G networks, there’s one potentially serious drawback: 5G will require many more cell towers than 4G.

The paper states that “the number of cell towers in urban areas required to deliver a 5G cellular mobile network will double.” So that means if all three companies roll out their own 5G network, we can expect double the number of cell towers in our cities and towns.

The big worry is that this may negatively impact the health of people who live or work close by these cell towers.

Massey University’s School of Engineering and Advanced Technology began a study of the health impacts of 5G back in 2016. So I reached out to the leader of that project, Dr. Syed Faraz Hasan, for an update.

“We are in the process of preparing a draft on our health study, which we intend to send for international peer review,” Dr. Hasan told me. One of the reasons for the long time frame, apart from the peer review process, is the need to assess the impact of long-term exposure to 5G.

In the meantime, Dr. Hasan has some suggestions on how 5G should be rolled out here. He thinks there should be just one, national, network.

“Given the size and population of NZ,” he said, “it is probably wise to keep the competition at the retail level, because 5G infrastructure will be laborious and costly to deploy.”

Regarding the potential increase in cell towers, Dr. Hasan thinks regulation on how many antennae can be placed in an area may need to be revisited.

“Controlling transmit power could be another regulatory issue,” he added, “because that will not only affect out-of-band emissions, but also the amount of electromagnetic radiation that the users will be exposed to.”

So should we be worried about the health risks of 5G? While there is no firm data yet in New Zealand, overseas there is rising concern. Last September, more than 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries sent a declaration to officials of the European Commission to recommend a moratorium on 5G roll out. The group claimed that 5G will “substantially increase exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF).”

Back home, the MBIE paper only mentions the health risks once. There is a note about “managing any potential health effects from increased exposure to nonionizing radiation.” But a couple of paragraphs on, we’re told that “New Zealand standards for non-ionizing radiation are consistent with international standards.”

Somehow I don’t find that reassuring.

I’d like to see our government more fully address the health risks of 5G. If they haven’t already, they should seek the advice of Dr. Hasan and his team at Massey University.

The common sense approach would surely be to roll out just one 5G network, rather than three of them. The fewer cell towers we have in our urban centres, the better.