The science behind the latest mobile technology.
Vodafone is preparing to launch New Zealand’s first 5G network in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. But with new tech comes new fears and health concerns. So what is 5G and what’s everyone worried about?
Like 4G and 3G before it, the G stands for “generation” – so 5G is the 5th generation of mobile network technology. The technology itself is a faster way of transmitting data from mobile towers to your phone, car or whatever 5G device you have.
The allure of 5G is speed – not so much in pure data transmission speeds (5G can reach speeds 10 times faster than 4G), but in terms of latency. If you have a button that performs a function, latency is the time between pressing the button and the function starting. You want this time to be as low as possible.
The example used most often is self-driving cars. The car needs to transmit all the road information and get decisions on that information as fast as possible – you don’t want there to be any lag in the car figuring out if it should stop or not.
As with the car, 5G is going to be incredibly useful for internet-connected devices, such as transit and utility systems, which will automate our cities and communicate faster and more reliably with our personal devices.
These devices need an uninterrupted 5G connection, which means the new networks will be everywhere. This has led some to wildly speculate on what that means for our health.
Firstly, don’t get your science information from Facebook. It’s full of scams and people desperate to prey on your fears so they can get clicks and sell stuff. I took a look through a handful of the dozens of anti-5G Facebook groups that have sprung up, and the claims are at best unsubstantiated and at worst fabricated.
I found ideas ranging from 5G signals interfering with the weather satellites used by NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) to 5G secretly being a weapon designed by the US military. These are easily debunked with a quick search and a read through relevant scientific journals or by going to the source.
For example, NIWA has confirmed 5G won’t affect their work because the satellites work on different frequencies.
“… we understand that the planned 5G network announced by Vodafone uses lower frequencies of 3.5 GHz and will not affect weather satellite technology in New Zealand," said NIWA’s chief scientist Environmental Information Dr Jochen Schmidt.
The most common claim is 5G will harm you. This seems to be based on a misunderstanding of electromagnetic waves and the energy levels of these signals.
The science is simple, but does require explanation. I asked Dr David Krofcheck, senior lecturer at Auckland University Department of Physics, to help out.
But first, some background information. Electron volts (eV) are units of energy equal to 1.6x10-19 joules (0.00000000000000000016 joules). Electron bonds are what keep molecules together, and to break an electron bond you need more energy than is holding it together.
All good? Ok, let’s do some science!
“5G frequencies are non-ionising radiation, which means they cannot remove electrons from DNA or other chemical structures in the body. Electromagnetic waves in the frequencies used by 5G between 3.5 and 24 GHz carry 10-5 to 10-4 electron volts (eV) of energy (0.00001eV to 0.0001eV).
These energy values are at least 100,000 to 1,000,000 times less energy than that of typical electron bonds in human biology – 1 eV to 10 eV.
In contrast, the energy from visible sunlight is 10-3 eV (0.001eV) and ultraviolet light around 140 eV. Which is why you can be sunburned.”
Non-ionising radiation also doesn’t have a cumulative effect on the body, unlike ionising gamma or X-rays.
Moreover, the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation found heating from absorbing radiation at the 5G frequencies is safe when below the existing New Zealand standards. And a report by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency stated “epidemiological studies investigating occupational and environmental exposure from RF transmitters since 2000 have not altered the conclusion that no detrimental health effects have been observed consistently in such studies.”
Or to put it bluntly, 5G is not harmful.