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Is 5G dangerous? Debunking the myths

Fifth-generation wireless is the latest iteration of mobile technology. Here are six myths surrounding 5G wireless technology -- and why they aren't true.

Fifth-generation wireless (5G) is the latest iteration of mobile technology, built to significantly increase the speed and responsiveness of wireless networks.

With 5G, data transmitted over mobile broadband connections can travel at multi-gigabit speeds, with up to 20 gigabits-per-second peak data rates and more than 100 megabits-per-second average data rates. These speeds offer latency of 1 millisecond or less. The low latency promise of 5G is important for business use cases and applications that require real-time feedback.

One use case for 5G is fixed wireless access, where a 5G connection would replace a user's wired home Internet service. In addition, 5G will basically change the way users consume and interact with information, enabling them to take advantage of the potential of virtual and augmented reality.

One of the myths around 5G is that it's ready to roll out. In reality, 5G networks and services will be deployed in stages over the next several years to accommodate the increasing reliance on mobile and Internet-enabled devices (e.g., smartwatches and smart home devices). 5G Internet of Things (IoT), connected cars, industrial IoT and smart cities initiatives are expected to begin around 2023.

Upgrading from 4G to 5G -- unlike upgrading from 3G to 4G networks -- means building an entirely new antenna infrastructure, such as the one South Korea built in 2018.

Even though 5G networks offer faster connection speeds than 4G, some countries are banning 5G or at least delaying its roll out until research into the potential health impacts of the new cellular technology is completed.

Here are six more common myths surrounding 5G wireless technology that have been debunked.

1. Does 5G cause cancer?

In a word, no -- 5G does not cause cancer nor does it lead to brain tumors.

The entire electromagnetic spectrum can be divided into two types of radiation: ionizing radiation, which kills people, and non-ionizing radiation, which doesn't. 5G mobile network technology is transmitted over non-ionizing radio waves.

Every frequency range that's used for cellular communication is in the non-ionizing part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including the 28 gigahertz (GHz) and 39 GHz frequencies considered for 5G millimeter wave, an extremely small wavelength.

The 5G technology falls within the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) exposure guidelines, which state that people can be exposed to radiation between 300 kilohertz and 100 GHz. Currently, 5G spans the range between 25.250 GHz and less than 100 GHz.

2. Is 5G linked to COVID-19?

Despite all the information on the Internet to the contrary, 5G is in no way linked to COVID-19.

Recently, disinformation that 5G networks were responsible for the coronavirus pandemic spread on social media, while conspiracy theorists perpetrated the hoax that a group of "global elites" was using 5G to spread the coronavirus.

One theory suggests that 5G networks cause COVID-19 or symptoms of the virus. Another theory posits that 5G networks emit radiation, weakening the immune system and making people more susceptible to COVID-19.

However, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection insists that no link exists between 5G and the coronavirus. The group, which is made up of independent scientific experts, studies how exposure to electromagnetic fields used by cell phones and other devices affect human health.

3. Can 5G be weaponized?

Every new wireless mobile technology that's introduced brings with it concerns about the affect and use of electromagnetic radiation. It happened with 4G and continues with 5G.

Nevertheless, it doesn't seem likely that 5G will be shocking people with some high-frequency radiation from cell towers.

Still, it's not hard to understand the origin of the idea that 5G can be used as a weapon because 5G uses sub-millimeter and millimeter waves -- as does a prototype device from the United States military that's used for crowd control.

The military's Active Denial System sends out millimeter waves as a beam that penetrates the top layer of a person's skin, causing a heating sensation that's not very pleasant -- although it doesn't really hurt.

People who claim that the impacts of 5G radio waves aren't fully tested might compare the effects of this device to the effects of 5G waves. However, this is a far cry from claiming that 5G can be used as a weapon.

4. Will 5G replace 4G and will I need a new phone?

No, 5G technology isn't actually replacing 4G technology. Instead, 5G is its own technology, building on top of 4G networks that are already in place. That means even if 5G is available in a particular area, people will still be able to use their 4G phones.

While it's true that users will need 5G phones to access 5G networks, people with 4G phones may also experience faster speeds as 5G networks roll out.

There are a couple of reasons for this: dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology and carrier aggregation.

DSS lets carriers use the same spectrum band for 4G and 5G. Consequently, as people move to 5G, carriers will keep the 4G lanes open for smart home devices and people who haven't yet switched to 5G.

And carrier aggregation lets carriers combine 4G signals with other 4G signals, resulting in a massive performance and capacity lift. 

5. Will 5G force weather predictions back to the 1980s?

It's not yet totally clear how much 5G might affect weather forecasting. On the one hand, some scientists worry that 5G wireless networks will interfere with critical satellite data that's needed to accurately observe and forecast hurricanes.

The scientists are mainly concerned with the 24 GHz frequency the FCC is using for 5G. The band is located close to the 22.235 GHz frequency -- one of the frequencies the water vapor molecule emits that scientists say is needed to accurately forecast the weather.

They argue that the 24 GHz signal coming from cell towers will interfere with, or overwhelm, the subtle 22 GHz signal coming from water vapor. Losing that critical water vapor data would damage the forecast models.

In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims that this interference could reduce the accuracy of weather forecasts by 30%, or back to the level of forecasting accuracy experienced in the 1980s.

Then again, CTIA, a trade association that represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, contends that there is no science to back up this claim. They say it's based on a study of a microwave sensor that was never put to use.

If water vapor data is removed or compromised, the accuracy of weather forecasts could be reduced, according to researchers. However, it's unclear how degraded the forecasts would be.

The bottom line is that more research is needed before there can be a definitive answer to this issue.

6. Will 5G towers kill birds?

No, the 5G mobile cellular network does not kill birds. Radio wave emissions from radio transmission antennas -- including cell telephone towers -- above 10 megahertz are not known to harm birds.

This myth was introduced by a 5G conspiracy theorist who claimed that a 5G antenna test caused a flock of starlings to die. However, the Audubon Society totally debunked this myth.

Although researchers have theorized that cell frequencies could affect how migratory birds navigate, they noted that it was not to a harmful degree. To date, researchers have not uncovered any direct evidence that 5G has any harmful effects on birds.

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