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The 5G Dilemma

The pandemic has opened a fresh debate around the future of 5G in India. Infrastructure requirements could further delay its launch

There are still believers of the flat earth theory," says S.P. Kochhar, Director-General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), a lobby body representing Indian telecom operators. "The doubting community will always be there. It's not black and white. Enough studies have been done already," he says on the issue of fresh concerns over possible links between 5G technology and the spread of Coronavirus.

Over the past couple of months, telcos and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) officials have been fighting a perception battle against a group of people who believe that 5G could harm humans. Last month, telecom towers in certain parts of Haryana and Punjab were vandalised and DoT issued an official statement to allay concerns. "It has come to the notice of the DoT that several misleading messages are being circulated on various social media platforms claiming the second wave of Coronavirus has been caused by the testing of 5G mobile towers... these messages are false and absolutely not correct... the general public is hereby informed that there is no link between 5G technology and spread of Covid-19... Moreover, it is informed that testing of the 5G network has not yet started anywhere in India," according to the statement.

The anti-5G lobby got greater prominence when Bollywood actor Juhi Chawla recently filed a petition in the Delhi High Court against the roll-out of 5G in the country. Though the court dismissed her petition and fined her Rs 20 lakh for "abusing the process of law", the matter is unlikely to die down soon. Why?

A telecom consultant says the reasons are two-fold: malicious intent of some people, and lack of information about the effects of radio waves on living beings. "There are two types of people behind it. Those who have a vested interest, and have an axe to grind. The second type is sitting on the fence, but if someone creates a doubt in their minds, they start to believe in the worst," he says, adding, people who spread rumours mask pertinent details. "Nobody wants to go into the depth of it. The government should step in to take action against people with bad intent. As for fence-sitters, the industry needs to spread awareness," he says.

Truth vs Hype

The race for 5G in India began early this year when Sunil Mittal-led Bharti Airtel became the first telecom operator to demonstrate live 5G services over a commercial network in Hyderabad. Last year, Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani indicated that Reliance Jio would launch 5G services in the second half of 2021. That seems unlikely, given that its 5G test runs have just started, and the government is yet to auction 5G spectrum (3,300-3,600 megahertz or MHz).

Some experts are apprehensive of the launch of 5G services even next year since telcos will need to put up more towers and small cell sites, an area they are likely to face resistance from public, and RWAs (resident welfare associations) in particular. "5G works on higher frequencies, and by design, it would require street furniture (installing small cells over billboards, light poles, park benches, utility poles, traffic signals, etc.) for propagation, especially in dense urban locations. This requirement could delay the launch since health concerns have heightened due to the pandemic," says an industry expert.

Initially, telcos are expected to launch 5G in Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, before heading to rural areas where setting up street furniture might not be required. "Smaller towers need less power to function, and hence, they emit less radiation compared to large ones. Higher frequencies cannot even warm up the body, forget penetrating it. I cannot do future gazing, but I don't see any roadblocks for 5G launch as of now," says COAI's Kochhar. Typically, a small cell tower covers a radius of less than a kilometre, compared to 3-3.5 kilometres for existing ones.

Rules in Place

The Centre has been proactive in addressing radiation concerns from mobile towers. Part of the reason being that the issue keeps cropping up after every few years as it had with 2G, 3G and 4G. In 2017, for instance, the DoT launched Tarang Sanchar portal, which gives easy access to radiation levels of mobile towers. If users have an issue with any particular tower, they can call for a re-check. Similarly, the DoT has prescribed norms for exposure limit for base station emissions, which are 10 times more stringent than safe limits prescribed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But, experts say the government needs to do more than just relying on the findings of WHO or the ICNIRP (a private industry body) since the anti-5G lobby has evidence to show. A two-year study commissioned by the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) proves cancer in male rats and some in female rats when exposed to the kinds of radiation emitted from 2G and 3G phones.

Then, in September 2017, over 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries recommended a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G until potential hazards for humans and the environment are fully investigated by scientists.

"India needs to discuss a 5G radiation strategy to safeguard environment, human and living beings. The main argument in defence is that there is no concrete evidence to show any negative impact of the technology on living organisms. That is also the official stand of the government. Nobody has done any research or study to assess the impact. Everybody just relies on the ICNIRP report of 1998 when 4G and 5G were non-existent," says N.K. Goyal, Chairman Emeritus, Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association of India (TEMA). TEMA says it supports the government's view, which is based on ICNIRP/WHO studies.

Last year, the ICNIRP released guidelines to protect people from adverse health effects of radio frequencies in the range of 100 kHz (kilohertz) to 300 GHz (gigahertz), such as 5G. The guidelines ensure mobile radiation does not result in excessive temperature rise due to brief exposure. However, some leading physicists have raised questions on these guidelines, stating that they do not differ much from the 1998 guidelines, and therefore offer no protection.

"Some scientists have done research and informed about the risks. They were shot down by standard arguments that their sample size is small, that they have ulterior motives and that the results were not concrete evidences," says the telecom consultant quoted above.

Consultancy firm Deloitte says the power transmitted from mobile telephony, including 5G, is far lower than that from light bulbs, television, radio towers, or even sunlight on an overcast day. "The quantity of this power is measured in watts, and a single watt is a tiny quantity of energy. The power transmitted by mobile phones used in 2021 and into the foreseeable future can reach up to two watts, depending on the age of the phone; it can be as low as 0.001 watt, with the vast majority of devices in use this year peaking at 1 watt. By comparison, the power transmitted by CB (citizens band) radios, which have been in use for decades, reaches up to four watts," says a recent Deloitte report.

The report also says a person less than half a meter away from a 25-watt bulb is exposed to thousand time more radiation than the one standing 10 meters away from a high-powered 5G base station. "People absorb five times more radio frequency exposure from FM radio and TV broadcasts than from mobile network base stations," it adds.

The biggest argument in favour of 5G is that there have been no incidents of health hazards in countries where 5G networks are commercially live for more than a year. According to Internet speed monitoring firm Ookla, there are over 65,000 live 5G deployments across the world with a majority of them in the US, Germany, and China. "When a technology is being developed just now, how can we have concrete evidences in its support?" asks TEMA's Goyal.

The large-scale launch of 5G is still some time away, but arguments against the technology are showing no signs of slowing down. For the sector, the next few months will be crucial to work on raising awareness while dispelling rumours with hard facts.