As fifth-generation or 5G mobile phone service is rolled out across the United States, concerns about the potential health effects of the technology linger, enabled in part by a systematic disinformation campaign by Moscow. The New York Times reports that an organized effort from state-owned Russian news outlets is largely responsible for raising unnecessary concerns about this cellular technology.
Some consumers are apprehensive about using the new networks after news spread of 5G causing nosebleeds, fatigue and even cancer in some cases. According to the NYT, the suspicions are partly caused by RT America, a Russian-government-owned news outlet with an impressive digital reach. RT America aired one program about the health hazards of 5G networks in 2018 but has broadcast seven in the first four months of this year, indicating an intensifying disinformation campaign.
What is 5G?
5G data speeds are tens of times faster than the previous fourth generation (4G) of technology. 5G networks also have lower latencies (or signal lag) and allow more users to connect to nearby cellular towers at the same time, expanding overall reach. According to CNET, the true potential of 5G lies in the dramatic improvements in bandwidth it offers to driverless cars, telemedicine, and virtual reality gear, apart from improved usage in smartphones, laptops and streaming devices.
5G technology uses new radio and device hardware to offer advanced broadband facilities for consumers. The 5G networks operate on a separate radio band for communication that makes use of a higher frequency than the existing 4G, albeit this “high frequency” is still very low compared to the harmful “high frequency” of other electromagnetic waves.
Since the frequency of radio waves is inversely proportional to their wavelength, 5G signals cannot travel over large distances. This is why 5G technology requires a high number of small cell towers placed in close proximity to each other in order to boost signals. The increase in reception towers has largely been the source of panic surrounding the large-scale use of 5G since it means that humans will be more exposed to electromagnetic radiations than before.
The Global Rollout of 5G Has Begun
Over the past few weeks, mobile phone service providers have been rolling out 5G cellular coverage in select places around the world. After launches in the United States and South Korea, the arrival of 5G seems imminent in China and Europe before the year’s end.
KT, LG Uplus, and SK Telecom in South Korea became the first carriers in the world to offer 5G to users. Telecommunications firm Verizon has already made 5G available in Chicago and Minneapolis, with plans to expand to 20 major U.S. cities by the end of the year. Swisscomm and Qualcomm aim to launch 5G services in Switzerland soon, while Unicom has revealed it will do the same in China.
Is 5G Trailblazing Technology or a Health Hazard?
There is little doubt surrounding the claim that exposure to very high frequencies of electromagnetic radiation can cause severe health issues. Astronauts in space have to very careful of this because of harmful radiation from the sun. But radio waves like 5G are so low frequency that they are pretty much harmless for the human body.
But a report in The Wire claims that prolonged exposure to radio waves of high frequency can lead to concentrated heating in parts of the human body, giving rise to health complications. However, conclusive proof in this regard is still lacking. Institutions around the world, like the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S., regulate the frequency of wireless carriers to mitigate any risks.
Since the start of the digital age and the mass availability of smart devices and faster data connections, numerous researchers have sought to document the effect wireless services have on humans. According to a World Health Organisation study, collected data points to the conclusion that the use of smart devices is not harmful to the body.
The War Over Wireless
There are also geopolitical reasons for the circulation of rumors about 5G services. On April 14, RT America broadcasted a report claiming that exposure to 5G may cause cancer, nosebleeds, and learning disabilities. The basis of this report is completely fabricated, according to the NYT, since radio waves used for communication by cellular devices are low frequency, and are almost harmless for the human body.
Linked to these developments is a statement from the communication head of RT America, who is of the opinion that even though Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed the launch of 5G in his home country, RT America is merely sharing the concerns of Americans as a priority on media platforms by talking about “risks” associated with 5G as well. The one-sided focus on the same topic does not seem to take place in Russia.
U.S. competition with Chinese firms offering 5G technology has also intensified in recent months as demand for the new technology grows globally. As 5G is expected to revolutionize the pace of change in many industries, the two countries want to dominate the market offering 5G services. The U.S. is even pressuring allies like the United Kingdom and Canada to stop working with Chinese firm Huawei, the global leader in offering 5G equipment.
The stakes in the race to dominate 5G technology are high as it is interlinked with the questions of control over the world’s next-generation digital infrastructure and global power in the twenty-first century. And so peer-rivals China, Russia, and the United States are using a broad spectrum of the tools in their diplomatic and covert arsenals to obstruct the paths of their competitors in the great race for 5G domination.
Usman Kabir covered science, space, and technology for Globely News. As a kid, he would make models of the solar system and take part in water rocket competitions. His childhood obsession has led him to a degree in Space Science. Usman likes to spend his free time watching reruns of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Seinfeld."