Science and Human Rights

5G networks: a boon or a bane?

Ever since the launch of the Realme X50 pro in February 2020, dubbed India’s first 5G enabled smartphone, the aura surrounding the enigma that is 5G has increased exponentially. Smartphone manufacturers have since rolled out more and more 5G enabled smartphones to beat each other to the punch to launch their first 5G smartphone. 

Although India is far from achieving 5G connectivity anytime soon, 5G promises to be limitless in terms of speed, reliability and connectivity. 

5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks, 5G is expected to be the new global wireless standard after 4G. It promises to deliver peak data speeds in Gbps at ultra low latency with supreme reliability. It is also touted to be more widespread than its predecessors to improve accessibility in remote areas. 

Just how good is 5G? 

5G is expected to deliver speeds of up to 20Gbps, which is a whopping 100 times faster than the current peak 4G speeds. Downloading a full 8k movie is expected to be 500% faster on 5G than on 4G. Once the infrastructure for a 5G network is properly established it will almost be as if you are accessing any file directly from your workstation’s hard disk. 5G is also expected to provide ultra low latency and more robust signal strengths. This would ensure that the user experience is more uniform and data download and upload rates stay consistently high. 

5G however, in the grand scheme of things, is more focused on IoT or the Internet of Things which is a term used to describe the network of all physical objects connected via the internet. With extended frequency spectrums allowing more devices to connect to the internet, the resultant decrease in connectivity speeds is expected to be much less pronounced. 

Additionally, some of the aspects of 5G and its implementation starkly differentiate it from pre-existing telecom protocols and standards. The sophisticated algorithms that are used to pinpoint end unit location can provide accurate transmission of data, especially in the case of obstruction-sensitive microwave frequencies. Base stations will be established that will be much smaller than current cell towers. These scattered stations will be able to relay data directly to a device at astronomically fast speeds even in densely populated regions.

The transition is painstakingly slow 

One aspect of 3G and 4G that goes largely under the radar was the fact that they were established on pre-existing infrastructure. This significantly contributed to the ease with which they were widely adopted. In essence, what that means is that the small radio communication tower that was constructed back in the day has been revamped and improved continuously to be able to handle HD video streaming and other bandwidth-intensive tasks seamlessly. 

This advantage, however, is something that 5G would not be able to inherit. 

This stems from the fact that 5G plans to utilise millimetre frequencies in the 6Ghz to the 300 GHz range. Standard telecom hardware maxes out at 5-6Ghz.In addition, millimetre wave frequencies have certain specific limitations that previously used radio frequencies don't, such as obstruction sensitivity. 

Another important factor to take into consideration is that the base station frequencies of 5G networks are limited to a meagre 300meters of range vis-a-vis the 70km that conventional radio towers offer. This means that a significantly larger number of base stations would have to be constructed to ensure seamless data connectivity. Consequently, adopting 5G would be much more capital intensive. 

The cost factor coupled with the complexity of the system in itself means that wide-scale adoption of 5G networks would take a considerable amount of time. 

The inherent health risk 

Mobile networks over the years have had their fair share of criticism for being carcinogenic and potentially life-threatening but that comes nowhere close to the flak that 5G has received. 

Paul ben Ishai delivered a lecture on Wireless and Health at IIAS in February 2017. He pointed out that millimetre range EM waves can affect organic matter. Essentially, the frequency has reached a level where it now directly interacts with human cells. He showed that the human sweat gland could absorb electromagnetic energies within 77 to 110 GHz. This is well within the drafted electromagnetic range of 5G, and thus, any 5G network can and will affect the human body in some way. The absorption rate is made worse if the sweat gland is forced to work more, like during heavy physical activity. Studies in 2019 showed that EM radiations from mobile phones are linked to DNA damage in mice and rats. A 2017 research review found that EMF radiation from mobile phones is associated with glioma, a type of brain cancer. A 2018 study, on the other hand, did not find a clear association between high-frequency EMFs and brain tumours. 

Countless other studies have been conducted to establish a potential link between EM wave radiation and its health risks. However, to date, none of them have been conclusive. The WHO also maintains a neutral stance when it comes to this issue stating that there is limited research and a lot of disparity in the ones that have been conducted till now. 

So, to sum up, there is no conclusive research that shows that 5G has health risks and the studies conducted so far have been highly contradictory. 

What does the future hold? 

The future holds immense possibilities for 5G. The Gigabit speeds, ultra-low latency and widespread availability make it extremely sought after. We also know that emerging technologies like IoT, AR and VR will be easily supported by 5G. In particular, IoT is likely to be a game-changer for many sectors, particularly industrial, manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture and supply chain. 5G will underpin the adoption of IoT. 

Additionally, 5G could play a key role in the functioning of autonomous vehicles and boost remote connectivity. 

As far as India is concerned, Telecom companies like Airtel and Reliance Jio are at the forefront of bringing 5G to India. Airtel claims that its 5G network is ready whereas reliance has announced its intention to roll out 5G services in the second half of 2021. However, the government expects 5G services to roll out by early 2022. 

The DoT(Department of Telecommunications) has started a six month preliminary 5G trial in India. It has also issued spectrums for the same. The DoT has also teamed up with the likes of Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and c-DOT, keeping Chinese telecom companies out of the initial trial phase. 

With recent developments, an early 2022 widespread adoption of 5G in India looks more than likely.

References: 

1. https://www.bgr.in/news/commercial-5g-networks-live-in-61-countries-globally-when-w ill-it-launch-in-india-939970/ 

2. https://www.indiatoday.in/technology/features/story/5g-in-india-are-we-there-yet-1769 386-2021-02-15 

3. https://guild.co/blog/the-5g-revolution-a-boon-or-curse/ 

4. https://www.qualcomm.com/5g/what-is-5g 

5. https://www.healthline.com/health/is-5g-harmful#summary 

6. https://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/dot-allocates-spectrum-for-5g-tr ials-to-telecom-service-providers-121052801737_1.html

Submitted by Devansh Joshi