As the world is grappling with COVID-19, there are conspiracy theories floating around on the web that it has a direct link with 5G technologies. Nearly three months ago, the online debate on the role of 5G in the spread of coronavirus reached the offline world when four 5G masts (towers) of Vodafone were petrol-bombed in the UK. Following this incident, a joint statement was released by the telecom operators in the UK calling such claims baseless and harmful.
Soon after, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released an advisory clarifying that viruses, including coronavirus, don't travel on radio waves or mobile networks. WHO said that COVID-19 is spreading in many countries that do not have 5G mobile network.
The primary concern about the 5G technology is that it requires denser networks compared to 4G and 3G. That's because the spectrum bands (mid-band and millimetre waves) used for 5G services are higher frequency waves that require more towers and small cells for better coverage. Also, if telcos choose millimetre waves for 5G, they would have to use more antennas per base station. Consultancy firm EY estimates that 5G requires 5-10 times more small cells as compared to 4G. More towers, antennas and small cells typically translate into more exposure to radio waves.
As per US-based mobile and broadband network intelligence firm Ookla, there are 125 telcos around the world who have commercially rolled out 5G networks covering 8,801 locations as on July 1. The US has the highest number of 5G deployments followed by The Netherlands, Switzerland and South Korea. This is a sharp jump from just 743 deployments last July. In India, the 5G trials are stuck at the trials stage. Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is reportedly yet to give a go-ahead to telcos' trial proposals.
Nevertheless, the debate refuses to die down - much like the age-old debate on the damaging effects of existing 4G and 3G technologies on the human health. Some global studies have already been conducted on the effects of 5G technologies. While studies from WHO and US-based National Library of Medicine (NLM) remain inconclusive on the health hazards of 5G, a large number of independent scientists have red-flagged a host of negative effects.
For instance, WHO says that "given that the 5G technology is currently at an early stage of deployment, the extent of any change in exposure to radio frequency fields is still under investigation". Another study by NLM last September, which is essentially a review of the available researches, failed to draw any conclusions citing its sample "studies are very different and the total number of studies is surprisingly low".
In the recent years, over 300 scientists and doctors in more than 40 countries have signed International EMF Scientist Appeal which asks UN to enact strong regulations on the 5G. These scientists, who have also published peer-reviewed research on the matter, wrote to the US regulator Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking for moratorium on 5G rollouts citing serious health and environmental risks.
The most scathing research on the health hazard of 5G has come out from two Israeli professors -Yuri Feldman and Paul Ben-Ishai - which highlights that the current investigations of wireless frequencies (in the millimetre and sub-millimetre bands) confirm that these waves interact directly with human skin, specifically the sweat glands, which poses health risks.
This study points out that 5G frequencies are being used by the US, Russian and Chinese defence agencies for years to develop weapons that "rely on the capability of this electromagnetic frequency range to induce unpleasant burning sensations on the skin as a form of crowd control".
Just a handful of researches actually support 5G tech. Germany-based non-profit organisation International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) in March said that its review confirmed that there are no adverse effects on human health from radio frequencies used by mobile technologies, including 5G, if exposure is below certain threshold.
The time for higher data speeds, connected devices, and machine learning is here. The 5G is going to be the key enabler for these next-gen technologies. Even as the studies of 5G's effect on human health vary widely; global agencies like FCC, WHO and European Union are yet to conduct studies, there's an urgent need to have conclusive answers on the potential health risks before it's too late.