The next generation of cellular networks are beginning to roll out around the world at a time of unprecedented crisis and unprecedented connectivity.
For people who view global events as orchestrated by dark forces, all this change occurring at once is great fodder for conspiracy theories and doomsday predictions. For anyone familiar with that lens, their reactions (as crazy as they are) have been as predictable as the sunrise, but that doesn't mean that there aren't real causes for concern.
For those of us who realize that the world is far more chaotic and messy than any conspiracy theorist would have you believe, 5G still creates some worrying issues. If we pay attention to what this new technology actually does, we should be able to cut through the myths and misinformation and prepare ourselves for the real consequences that are coming down the pipeline.
But What Is 5G?
So what is 5G? In the simplest terms, it's the fifth generation of wireless communication networks, and it's defined by the frequencies in which it operates and the speed of data transfer it offers. While 4G systems operate at frequencies between about 600 MHz and 6 GHz, 5G nodes will be licensed to transmit signals in the so-called "millimeter wave" range between 24 GHz and 300 GHz, which will allow for more users to share a network and transmit data at speed up to ten times as fast as 4G. Essentially, it will allow cellular networks to achieve speeds faster than even most fiber Internet plans.
Why Is That scary?
But if that's all 5G is, why are people getting so upset about it? Why are they shooting at cell phone towers? While much of the fear around the new technology is connected to the unfounded belief that it is in some way responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, critics have been vocal about their concerns regarding 5G for years now. The fear is that the higher frequency signals have not been properly vetted and may cause health and environmental problems that we are not yet aware of. Among the fears are concerns about honey bees, cancer, and disruption of immune systems.
Most of these concerns are based on myths. While there are aspects of the honey bee decline that are still mysterious, there are a number of likely culprits that are not as interesting as the unfounded idea that cell phones are responsible, and so the cell phone story caught on. As for cancer, while it's true that higher-frequency electromagnetic signals tend to be more dangerous—like UV, X-Rays, etc.—visible light is transmitted at a higher frequency than any 5G signal, and people tend not to worry about the cancer risk of light bulbs.
But it's the concern about immune systems that has really flourished in recent months. While originally connected to the medically-dubious diagnosis of "electromagnetic hypersensitivity," the claim that certain frequencies of signal can disrupt immune function rose to new prominence in late 2019, when China's rollout of 5G happened to coincide with the first cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan. The miseducated corners of the Internet are now full of half-baked theories that the virus is being spread in tandem with the supposed immune-suppressing power of 5G for population control, tyrannical restrictions of freedom, and Bill Gates' plans for forced vaccination (AKA sterilization/mind control).
Chuck McGill on "Better Call Saul" believed himself to be suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity
It's a misguided attempt to answer a valid question: Why is this disease so much deadlier than others? Is it because the virus is hearty, highly contagious, and has a long incubation period during which it is largely undetectable? Yes. Will we adapt and find treatments and vaccines as we have for similarly deadly contagions? Of course. But the fact that the first deadly pandemic of our interconnected era happens to align with the release of this new technology was bound to produce some paranoia about 5G. And Bill Gates—the rich nerd who says he wants to save the world—has been fitting neatly into this kind of conspiracy theory for decades.
What Are the Actual Risks?
With all this confusion and hysteria surrounding the new technology, it's important not to ignore the actual risks involved. The recent proliferation of telecommuting and the added strain on all manner of telecommunication networks are likely to speed the global adoption of 5G. As that process progresses, major changes throughout our society will result . Some of those changes will be good, but others may have disastrous unintended consequences.
One of the major areas of concern involves weather satellites. Predictions from the daily temperature in your area to the likely path of a hurricane are based on satellite mapping that tracks the natural resonant frequency of water vapor—around 23.8 GHz. The water in the air gives off a very weak radio signal at that frequency, allowing satellites to track humidity and pressure systems. But the close proximity of that frequency to some newer 5G nodes will result in significant noise in satellite readings that are likely to compromise the accuracy of weather predictions—particularly around urban centers where 5G will be most prominent. The extent of the problem and the ability of scientists to work around it remain to be seen.
Another factor to consider is the problem of automation. Fast wireless speeds are necessary for coordinating complex automation like driverless vehicles and robotic warehouses. As 5G proliferates, broad sectors of the workforce are likely to become obsolete—replaced by new technologies. It's a process that has been ongoing for a while now, but 5G networks will accelerate the rate of change. Unless we have political programs in place to combat the effects of joblessness, the current economic turmoil may presage a long-term plight for our society that 5G will usher in.
What Else Are We missing?
Lastly, there are the consequences that we can't yet know. Every major country on the planet is rushing to implement this technology in their cities so as not to fall behind. We are rushing headlong toward this future that is hazy at best.
As protesters have pointed out, the high frequency range of 5G networks will cause the signals to degrade over long distances, or when passing through solid objects. This limitation may require carriers to use more cell towers and nodes, or possibly to transmit more powerful signals. What are the effects of surrounding ourselves with all those new, high-energy radio waves?
Will it be the same as adding a few more light bulbs to your home? Maybe. Or maybe long-term exposure will slightly increase the prevalence of certain types of cancer because of...who knows—some mechanism we haven't figured out yet. Or maybe it will cause subtle problems as a result of interacting with the atmospheric water vapor—altering patterns of humidity that will affect the spread of viruses… Probably not, but it is possible.
At this point we're entering the realm of wild speculation, but we don't have much choice. There is little research—if any—on the long-term effects of constant exposure to these frequencies of radiation. While there's no reason to expect any particular consequences, the amount that we still don't know about physics and biology is at least a strong case for humility. History is full of cases when new technologies had dire consequences that no one predicted—from x-ray shoe fitting to "non-addictive" opioids. Making such sweeping changes to our cities and expecting no health consequences at all—as we're being told to do—may turn out to be naive.
In the next few years 5G is going to spread throughout the US and much of the world, but it may take decades to find out.