Category Archives: 5G

Is 5G Bad for You?

5G has reignited old discussions about whether mobile signals are bad for us — both from cell towers and from the devices themselves.

I’m not a doctor, first off. But I think it’s at least worth taking a look at the data.

A piece by Fierce Wireless’ Sue Marek points to some poor reporting on the 5G base station issue. This centres around the assertion that because 5G requires denser base stations — more antennae per square mile, in other words — there are going to be more radio frequency emissions which will put us in danger. She points to a report, to put it charitably, by RT (yes, them, let’s call a spade Russia Today) which was explored by the New York Times. This was quite easily dismissed as disinformation, but is the Times’, and Marek’s conclusion — that ” 5G is not a health threat”, actually true?

There’s plenty of solid reporting that suggests it is. The WHO, the American Cancer Society, the NIH and others all report that, as WHO put it, “RF exposures from base stations and wireless technologies in publicly accessible areas (including schools and hospitals) are normally thousands of times below international standards.” All these reports are helpfully collated at Wireless Health Facts, which carries the logo of an outfit called CTIA, which the website doesn’t explain, but is in fact a trade association representing the U.S. wireless communications industry. (I don’t have a problem with the CTIA putting up a website collecting the solid research about 5G and health, but I wish they would make it clear a) who they are, b) link to their website, c) offer some way to connect to them via that website and d) include some contrary research for balance.)

And that last point is the thing. There IS contrary research that does suggest there’s a problem. Medical News Today, a UK-based commercial publication owned by Healthline Media, produced a report in August whose tagline said: “As 5G wireless technology is slowly making its way across the globe, many government agencies and organizations advise that there is no reason to be alarmed about the effects of radiofrequency waves on our health. But some experts strongly disagree.” The piece was written by Yella Hewings-Martin, a PhD in pediatrics and child health from University College London. The piece was fact-checked by a Bristol-based copy editor, Gianna D’Emilio.

Hewings-Martin’s piece, which is worth a read, walks the reader through the issues. At its core the question is: do the radio frequency electromagnetc fields (fields of energy resulting from electronomagnetic radiation, itself the result of the flow of electricity) from base stations and handsets cause negative biological effects on us humans?

Yes, is the answer: at high levels they cause heating, which lead to burns and other tissue damage. But mobile devices emit these RF-EMFs at low levels, so is this going to be a problem?

A panel of 30 scientists the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2011 concluded that there was limited evidence, and so classified RF-EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, lumping it in the same group as aloe vera whole leaf extract, gasoline engine exhaust fumes, and pickled vegetables, according to Hewings-Martin.

Although IARC is part of the World Health Organisation, the WHO is conducting its own study. That’s not finished yet. For now, the WHO states that: “To date, no adverse health effects from low level, long term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area.”

Hewings-Martin acknowledges in her piece that 5G is a different kettle of fish. 5G needs smaller cells because the high-frequecy radio waves it uses have a shorter range. But she quotes a paper in Frontiers in Public Health from August that:

Higher frequency (shorter wavelength) radiation associated with 5G does not penetrate the body as deeply as frequencies from older technologies although its effects may be systemic.

Here it cites two studies which both say our understanding of, for example, “the implications of human immersion in the electromagnetic noise, caused by devices working at the very same frequencies as those to which the sweat duct (as a helical antenna) is most attuned.”

The bottom line: Researchers always want to do more research. But their point is a good one: long term studies, like this one, are looking at the effect of all these EMF-related health risks over decades. We’re barely into two decades of mobile phone use, and now we’re shifting the technology into new areas. While I definitely agree with those who want to see less fear-mongering, I think it’s intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the medical and academic literature that points to concerns and which highlights our lack of understanding of the long term effects of the technology.

I would like to see the CTIA include these studies (or solid pieces like Hewings-Martin’s) on its website, and I would also like to see a proper investigation of claims by academics like Lennart Hardell that the provisional conclusion of the WHO cited above was written by a team of six people, five of whom were serving or former members of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), what Hardell calls “an industry-loyal NGO”. The ICNIRP is explored in an Investigate Europe piece here.

These alleged conflicts of interest are an area of controversy in themselves: Susan Pockett, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, wrote a paper for Magnetochemistry, a peer-reviewed journal published by MDPI, earlier this year, exploring outfits like the ICNIRP, concluding that “politicians in the Western world should stop accepting soothing reports from individuals with blatant conflicts of interest and start taking the health and safety of their communities seriously.” The paper has since been retracted, according to Retraction Watch, after its editorial board “found that it contains no scientific contribution and that Magnetochemistry is not the appropriate forum for this kind of “opinion” publication.”

Pockett accused the publication of “political interference in the normal processes of science. The paper was nobbled, by one of the many large entities (governments, regulatory agencies, Big Wireless) who would have found the facts it states inconvenient.” (It’s not clear who complained about the piece, and Pockett provides no evidence for her claims. Retraction Watch points to Pockett using some questionable instrumentation for gathering data used in her paper.)

The Phantom Prospects of 5G

Source: Light Reading
Source: Light Reading

Telcos are once again touting a new generation of mobile protocols as their saviour. And once again, we should raise an arched eyebrow. 

A great piece by Mike Dano from Light Reading dissects the reasons behind — and the challenges facing — telcos’ push for 5G. And why you shouldn’t be expecting 5G to rock your world any time soon.

The reasons are relatively simple. The above chart from Wall Street analysts MoffettNathanson show how, for US telcos (and the story is similar elsewhere) there’s a lot more data traffic (the black line) , but a lot less money being made per user (the blue line).

So telcos need something new. Hence 5G. But how are they going to make money out of it? The old thinking about 4G was that the improved speeds and bandwidth was going to enable telcos to make more money out of each user. But that hasn’t happened (see chart again.) So why do they think 5G will be any different?

5G is going to be very expensive to deploy. This is not just a question of attaching a new box or upgrading an existing one to an existing basestation or tower. Mike quotes MoffettNathanson in a recent research note on Verizon. “Deploying 5G networks with enough density to meet expectations for blazing fast 5G speeds will cost real money. If not from charging more for using more, then where will the money come from?”

Atop that are the problems of heat, which I’ve written about before.

So the most likely outcome of 5G, at least in the first few years, is that it’s aimed at business. Think the Internet of Things (IoT): connected (and self-driving) cars, smart cities, healthcare, industrial automation. Or outdoor surveillance cameras, according to a Gartner report cited by Mike, which says this is likely to be the largest market for 5G in the short term.

But even then, there are questions about this. This won’t be cheap for enterprises. And 3G and 4G hardly shone when it came to connecting devices. Attaching a modem to a device and then having that ping back is expensive — installing and replacing a battery, if necessary, having and managing a SIM card for each device, etc.

Ericsson, one of the cheerleaders for mobile IoT, acknowledges in a June report that despite its grand claims for a mobile IoT future, most mobile IoT devices are actually using 2G and 3G:

Today, the majority of cellular IoT devices are connected via 2G and 3G technologies (GPRS, EDGE and HSPA). The number of legacy connections is expected to increase slightly until 2022, and then remain stable throughout the rest of the forecast period.

Hard to imagine that’s a huge source of revenue.

And then there’s narrowband IoT, which I’ve written about before. Yes, 5G offers the kind of speed and low latency that would be attractive for a lot of use cases, but when you just need to send a few bytes narrowband is much more appealing. And needn’t involve the telcos at all.

Most likely outcome? Telcos are going to have to demonstrate, somehow, to customers that the new use cases they’re hoping will save them will actually work. And that means working closely with them or investing in them, or vice versa. Build it and they will come might be the mantra, but that is going to require a lot of faith that they will indeed come, and in a timeframe that makes sense. New verticals don’t pop up overnight.

5G’s Achilles Heel: Heat

5G promises a lot. a mobile internet of things, new immersive VR and AR experiences, lower latency, washboard stomachs. But something the industry isn’t addressing is that the devices themselves heat up. A lot. This from Digits to Dollars‘ Jonathan Goldberg: 

5G phones get hot. Really hot. Probably not hot enough to ignite your battery (probably), but enough to generate a definite burning sensation in your pants pockets. At Mobile World Congress in February, we spoke with an engineer from Sony who was demo’ing a phone (behind glass) that was clocking 1 Gbps speeds. Wow, fast. We asked the engineer why it was not going faster and he said “It overheats.” A good solid answer, from a nuts-and-bolts-and-antenna person. We will wager any amount that at next year’s show, no one on the floor will be as open about this problem.

The industry, Goldberg writes, is tackling this issue by er, ignoring it. And indeed the standard response appears to be that “we’ve seen heat problems with every new generation and what we have with 5G is nothing significant, 3G was way worse,” as one commenter said he’d been told at a 5G conference. But that may be underestimating the problem — Goldberg says the “heat budget” is 67% higher than current phones. (Heat budget is the total amount of thermal energy transferred to the chip when the device is in operation.) And he points out that both no-one seems yet to be offering a solutions and “solving the issue in 3G broke a couple vendors.” 

Some background: what we call 5G is actually two stages of technology. What most carriers are currently rolling out is phase 1, or what is called, confusingly, sub 6, an evolution of 4G that bring (quoting Goldberg again in a different post): “modest improvements in data rates as well as some important, but hard to observe, changes in the software the operators use to run their networks.” The big step will be the second phase, mmWave, “will bring much more tangible changes, notably including data rates at or above 1 Gbps.”It’s these mmWave radios that are (indirectly) causing the problem. 

As I understand it, these mmWave operate at very high frequencies — close to microwave — which require high clock speeds in the chips. The heat this creates is concentrated in a small subset of the electronic components within the phone, and there’s no easy way to move that energy around. Goldberg again: 

Of course there are some solutions, but none of them are complete and they all have serious drawbacks. It turns out that the way we cool electronics has not advanced in 40 years. There are really two methods used currently to cool Things down- Fans and Dissipation.

Fans are what you think they are. Anyone who has ever opened up their desktop PC or overclocked their laptop knows what these look like. But fans have two problems: they are big and they have moving parts. Both of those require design decisions that go counter to every mobile design trend in the past 15 years.

Dissipation is just the idea of moving the heat around to hasten air cooling. In a PC, this is typified by those funny looking prong-things that sit on top of CPUs. Those things are too tall to fit inside a 10mm thick phone. So for mobiles, OEMs are looking at using ‘straws’, or copper pipes that span the length of the phone. These take up a lot of space and inserting a large conductive element (copper!) inside a phone wreaks havoc on mobile radios, (i.e. hurting data rates).

We all know the problems of overheating phones, but what is surprising is how little this issue seems to be addressed. Goldberg says that this is a problem on a whole new level to previous generations, and one that is only now being addressed: “The problems with 5G mmWave are larger and will not go away as quickly. Handset makers are just waking up to the existence of this problem.”

The only place to find discussion of this issue appears to be in academia, which itself notes the lack of discussion. In a paper published last year three researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology wrote (PDF):

the heat dissipation of smartphones restricts the maximum receiving rate of smartphones. Although the maximum receiving rate of smartphones is restricted by the computation capability and heat dissipation, detailed studies of basic models used for evaluating the maximum receiving rate of smartphones are surprisingly rare in the available literature.

The researchers ran their own tests and reached some sobering conclusions: 

– anything above 4 Gbps and the temperature of the smartphone reaches above 45 C “within a few seconds.” (5G has promised peak data rates up to 20 Gbps and Qualcomm’s first 5G modem “is designed to achieve up to 5Gbps downlink peak data rate.” So the smartphone has to “decrease the computation capability of the chip to reduce the heat generation, e.g., decrease the working frequency of the chip, to prevent low-temperature burns on the user’s skin. Thus, smartphones cannot sustain the original receiving rate and may even have to shut off wireless communications.” This is obviously not an optimal outcome. This is already happening with the first mmWave 5G rollouts (what AT&T calls 5G+) — which, remember, is not the one that involves mmWave radios: The Wall Street Journal wrote in July that their Galaxy S10’s 5G switched off in the Icelandic summer. Others have reported similar problems.

The researchers recommend that to address this”using new materials or redesigning the components’ structure to improve the heat conduction rate from the chip to other low-temperature components in smartphones. Additionally, mobile edge computing, one of the 5G technologies, can be applied to improve the maximum receiving rate of smartphones by offloading the computation assignments in the chips.” It’s hard to imagine that would be a welcome advance, since as I understand it it would mean transferring a lot of the hard work from the phone to the base station — and who exactly would pay for that? 

The researchers are, in their academic way, somewhat scathing of how the field has failed to address the serious matter of device heat: “In 5G and future 6G cellular networks, most of research is focused on the core networks and BSs. However, many potential impacts triggered by the maximum receiving rate of smartphones have not yet been investigated. How to design reasonable mobile terminals for matching with 5G and future 6G wireless communication systems is still an open issue for industries and academic researchers.” 

That was a year ago. One can only hope the device manufacturers are addressing this. For now, it seems to make sense to take 5G promises with a pinch of salt and a bucket of ice.