Could the 5G Future Pose a Health Risk?

Dan Jones
News Analysis
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor
5/12/2016



Super-fast 5G wireless is still years away from widespread commercial service but researchers are already wondering if the new networks -- which will feature many more radios than previous cellular architectures deployed very densely in towns and cities -- could pose a health risk to the general public.

Massey University in New Zealand has announced this week that it got funding to investigate if there will be any adverse effects of electromagnetic radiation to human health caused by the next generation of telecommunication networks called 5G. The research will take place through 2017.

5G -- Fifth Generation -- wireless is expected to be tens or even hundreds of times faster than 4G, downloading a movie over the network in mere seconds. To achieve that speed -- and provide exciting new applications on future networks -- 5G will use higher frequencies and be deployed more densely than previous cellular networks, which have largely been determined to be safe for us puny humans, ever have before. (See 5G: What Is It & Why Does It Matter? and 5G: As Close as You'll Get to a Jet Pack!.)

"With some industry giants predicting 50 billion connected devices by 2020 and with the employment of much higher transmission frequencies proposed for the 5G rollout, it is essential to determine how the future of telecommunications will affect the health of its users," principal investigator Dr. Faraz Hasan says in the announcement.

Hasan is talking about centimeter and millimeter waves, which have previously only been used in very limited short-range fixed wireless and mobile backhaul applications. It is anticipated with the coming of 5G, frequencies like 15GHz, 28GHz, 39GHz and 60GHz could be put into widespread usage, and these short-range, high-speed signals would require thousands (maybe millions) more radios and antennas to be dotted round the cityscape. 4G networks today are typically built around low- and medium-band radio spectrum (600MHz to 2.5GHz in the US) and a backbone of cell towers with some distributed antennas and smaller radios to extend coverage. (See Sprint: We're Building a 5G-Ready Network, Not a 4G Relic.)

Operators, researchers and vendors are now turning that model of deployment on its head with plans that will mix some large towers with many, many more small radios using higher frequencies than ever before. So, naturally, health concerns about incredibly dense radio network networks in urban environments are starting to bubble to the surface. (See Sprint's Saw: '5G' Opp Is Moving Signal Closer to Customers.)

There's a further wrinkle to the 5G radios that it is not even clear from the announcement whether this research will grapple with or not. The FCC, for instance, keeps very tight limits on the antenna power limits allowed for different fixed and mobile applications. Carriers in the US, however, are starting to ask the agency if they can increase the amount of Effective Isotropic Radiated Power (EIRP) -- that's peak antenna gain -- used for millimetre wave applications.

Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) said this in a filing to the FCC in January this year.

    'Conventional' base station antenna gains for other mobile uses typically have gains in the 925dBi range because they are limited by practical antenna size. In mmW bands, however, gains from 2045 dBi can be achieved depending upon beamwidths desired. A base station power limit of between 68 and 75 dBm EIRP is thus more appropriate for these higher frequency bands than the 62 dBm EIRP maximum proposed based on the properties of other spectrum.

So there you go, gentle reader, we don't think you'll be accidentally sterilized by the super-high power radio waves of the 5G future but we don't yet fully know what effect incredibly dense mmWave radio networks pumping out really hot signals might have!

Maybe don't throw out that tin foil hat just yet.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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