Judging from the enthusiastic acceptance of 5G technology by governments and industry, we are on the verge of a technological revolution. Initially introduced to help wireless networks cope with the ever-increasing data traffic on their networks, 5G will (its supporting claims) lead to innovations that change games such as remote operations, driverless vehicle control and more.

5G, which is finally scheduled to replace the current 3G and 4G cellular telephone networks, promises to accelerate data transfer rates up to 100 times or more, greatly reducing latency (the time between receiving signals by cellular base stations and their responses) and allowing cellular networks to manage far more devices are connected wirelessly than is possible today.

5G, however, has become very controversial in many locations, with groups of citizens, and some scientists, expressing concern about the possible impact of radiofrequency (RF) energy transmitted by the 5G BTS. The public opposition seems to focus on two characteristics of the 5G network:

First, the 5G system will operate in several frequency bands, including those slightly below (and eventually extending to) the millimeter wave portion of the RF spectrum that extends from 30 to 300 GHz. While millimeter waves have not yet been used for cellular communication, they have been used for many other applications, including airport security scanners, anticollision radars for cars, and to connect cellular base stations today.

Public discussion seems to configure 5G with millimeter wave communication. In fact, many 5G networks will operate at frequencies close to those used by cellular networks today, and some may use millimeter waves to handle high data traffic where needed.

Second, the 5G system will depend on many “small cells” that are installed close to the customer, often on utility poles that run along public roads. These small cells will combine “smart” antennas that transmit multiple beams (up to 64 with existing designs, ultimately more), which can be driven independently to each customer. They operate at a much lower power level than the “macro” cells used by the current system, which are usually located above buildings in urban areas.

In the long run, this will be equipped with pico cells installed inside the building, operating at lower power levels. The prospect of a dramatic increase in the number of sources transmitting RF signals is undoubtedly unsettling for many citizens, regardless of the actual health risks understood by health institutions.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made the introduction of 5G a high priority, eliminating some regulations and giving local communities less control over the placement of small cells (although this issue is currently in court and this may change somewhat). Thus, the public faces the introduction of new infrastructure that combines public, new and foreign technology. Engineers, for their own part, tend to consider 5G as an extension of current cellular technology (3G, 4G).

The possible danger of environmental exposure to radio frequency signals has long been the concern of many residents, leading to public resistance to wireless base stations, broadcasting facilities, cell phones and other public technologies. In a 2017 survey of 2,450 residents in six European countries, Peter Wiedemann, who was then at Wollongong University in Australia, found that 40 percent of respondents had some concerns, with 12 percent describing themselves as “very caring” – that is, often, think and talk about exposure to electromagnetic fields.

Their concerns are mainly focused on “unintentional” exposure to RF signals from environmental sources, including cellular base stations. Activist groups, supported by echo chambers from Internet Web sites, have protested against installing Wi-Fi in schools, wireless-capable electricity utility meters, cellular base stations, and other infrastructure that transmits RF energy to the environment.

While the level of public exposure to the RF field from the 5G network in the future has not been surveyed in detail (some such networks operate and technology is developing rapidly), it seems unlikely that they will be very different from those in existing cellular networks because of the fundamental technological imperatives is the same: to provide a signal that is strong enough to communicate with individual customers but not strong enough to cause interference to users in adjoining cells.

Even now, cellular networks are experiencing “densification” (adding lots of small cells) to manage the ever-increasing data traffic. By enabling faster data transmission and steering to individual users, 5G might, in fact, work to reduce the overall level of RF signals in the environment – but that will ultimately be offset by rapidly growing data traffic on cellular networks and ultimately flooding of devices which is wirelessly connected which is made possible by 5G.

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