5G: Spatial interactions and policy imperatives

February 21, 2018

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5G’s apparent inevitability begs us to look at the spatial aspects of wireless that shape data communication technology, profits, and public policy. The policy options — and imperatives — are underappreciated and under-reported.

In this article we take a brief look at 5G, that is, 5th generation wireless infrastructure. We look at how different radio frequencies interact with the environment in different ways, and how these interactions shape and drive 5G visions and realities. We look at a specific case of interaction — interaction with biological processes — that could change the way 5G evolves.

There are other reasons besides health to reconsider 5G. As it is currently advertised, 5G is all about high bandwidth wireless everywhere. Wireless is and will continue to be extremely profitable for the companies pushing it, but it’s being oversold. Wired technologies — copper phone lines, coaxial cable, Ethernet, and fiber optics — boosted by recent innovations, can in many cases provide faster, more secure, more private, and less intrusive connectivity at far less cost to users. Cities can choose early deployment of wired technologies rather than adding millimeter waves to the already dense electromagnetic environment. In doing so, they will also expose their citizens to fewer security and privacy risks, retain more community wealth, enjoy more local control, and avoid liability for insufficient environmental review of 5G.

What is 5G?

5G is seen as the wireless industry’s planned successor to 3G, 4G, and LTE networks. 5G is on the critical path for smart cities, IoT, virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, and more.

5G involves integrating networking of all types with computing and storage resources into one programmable and unified global infrastructure. This appears to me to be a logical and useful evolution of information technology. But the devil is in the details.

Operators (or “carriers”) are heavily focused on delivering access via wireless links, replacing wired connections wherever possible. One thing they are doing to accomplish this is expanding their portfolios of spectrum bands to include a wider range of frequencies, including frequencies above 3 gigahertz, probably extending to millimeter wave frequencies from 30 GHz to 300 GHz. This band is often called “extremely high frequency" or EHF. Many elements of 5G do not depend on the rollout of millimeter wave technology, but the hype about 5G almost always includes millimeter waves.

Millimeter waves’ spatial interactions with the environment

The biggest nano-spatial advantage of higher frequencies (and shorter wavelengths) is that they can carry more data. Sub-millisecond response is also possible at these frequencies. High frequency networks can therefore support more users and provide users with more bandwidth and faster real-time response for streaming video and audio, games, augmented reality, etc.

At millimeter wavelengths, phased array technology can be built into cell phones. This technology enables the radiation to be formed into beams that can be focused and dynamically directed. Let’s call this a micro-scale advantage. 

At the meso/micro-scale, such technology can be used for communication between vehicles and for high speed point-to-point communication in neighborhoods, rooms, and factories. The focusing aspect can be useful in some of these scenarios, but there is also the potential to raise the power density of human exposures.

The well-known spatial disadvantage of extremely high frequencies is that they are blocked by physical obstacles such as walls. That disadvantage, however, can be an advantage if a design goal is to have many networks using the same frequency within a limited area. This is a key goal of the “small cell” meso-scale networks that are part of 5G.

The real problem with millimeter waves

Almost universally, industry and governments are overlooking a much more important nanospatial millimeter wave problem: the nano-scale biological effects of millimeter waves. Millimeter waves can penetrate clothing, but they are blocked and absorbed by water, and so they penetrate only the first 1 to 2 millimeters of human skin and the surface layers of the cornea. In an August 7, 2017 post, Dr. Joel Moskowitz at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health provides an overview of the biological research, titled 5G Wireless Technology: Millimeter Wave Health Effects. He concludes:

“In sum, the peer-reviewed research demonstrates that short-term exposure to low-intensity millimeter wave (MMW) radiation not only affects human cells, it may result in the growth of multi-drug resistant bacteria harmful to humans. Since little research has been conducted on the health consequences from long-term exposure to MMWs, widespread deployment of 5G or 5th generation wireless infrastructure constitutes a massive experiment that may have adverse impacts on the public’s health.” (Italics mine)

Ron Melnick, National Institutes of Health scientist, now retired, led the design of the important and well respected National Toxicology Program study on cell phone radiofrequency radiation. Results of that study were widely reported in the first week of February 2018. Though the results were spun quite differently by different news outlets, the study shows clearly that low-level (“legal” for cell phones and too weak to cause heating) long-term exposures of 2G and 3G can cause certain cancers in rats and mice. Other effects are also shown. As quoted in a press release from the Environmental Health Trust, Melnick stated, "There is an urgent need to evaluate 5G health effects now before millions are exposed. We need to know if 5G increases the risk of skin diseases such as melanoma or other skin cancers."

More than 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries agree. They recommend a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry.

Wired vs wireless: comparative benefits

Policy makers working on telecommunications, smart grid and smart city issues owe it to their constituents to read a January 2018 paper titled “Re-Inventing Wires: The Future of Landlines and Networks” published by The National Institute for Science, Law & Public Policy in Washington, DC. “Wires” here refers to copper phone pair, DSL, cable, Ethernet, and optical fiber.

Frank M. Clegg, Past President, Microsoft Canada and CEO, Canadians for Safe Technology, writes in the paper’s forward:

“‘Re-Inventing Wires: The Future of Landlines and Networks’ is a blueprint for an imperative technological renaissance, and a re-envisioning of national communications infrastructure. Once communities at all levels — rural, town, city and nation — realize that they must assume local responsibility for creating safe and economical high-speed Internet access for all of their citizens, this renaissance will unfold. A sturdy, wired communication infrastructure, using wireless only as an adjunctive technology, has vast potential to become the electronic commons essential to commerce, education, jobs, the economy, social cohesion, communications and international competitiveness.” …. “This paper sets the record straight and fills our current information vacuum, offering consumers, business leaders and policy makers the critical facts they need to rethink a more intelligent and secure future with reliable, secure, wired communications more resilient to storm, flood and fire, and reducing the enormous carbon footprint from the present wireless approach. It also demonstrates why the mistaken upcoming 5G frenzy, with its millions of small cell antennas, destined to clutter all neighborhoods and public right-of-ways, is dangerous, wasteful and unnecessary.”

The paper’s author, Timothy Schoechle, PhD, points to success stories:

“Wireline municipal broadband services, currently operating in such places as Longmont, CO and Chattanooga, TN, are demonstrating the monumental economic benefits of high-speed wired systems that pay for themselves, bringing tremendous economic growth. For example, in Chattanooga, as Dr. Schoechle points out, a $220 million investment has yielded $865 million in economic growth for the city. And in Longmont, a new municipal broadband system there provides access to fast, inexpensive $49/month 1 Gigabit service, at a fraction of the cost others pay in many other cities today, an extremely attractive offering to businesses and residents alike. “Re-Inventing Wires: The Future of Landlines and Networks” builds the case that combining fiber access systems with electric power distribution systems, as in these two situations, can provide many synergistic advantages and opportunities for states and communities.

Timothy Schoechle serves as Secretary of ISO/IEC SC25 Working Group 1, the international standards committee for Home Electronic Systems. He previously served for a decade until 2016 as Secretariat of ISO/IEC SC32 Data Management and Interchange standards committee. Schoechle writes:

“The history of U.S. communication infrastructure increasingly supports the proposition that it is unrealistic to expect private monopolies, duopolies, or triopolies— regulated or unregulated — to make the long-term investments necessary to build the enduring and sustainable public broadband fiber information highway that the country needs. Corporations will invariably seek the cheapest, quickest, and most profitable path, which has led to the current emphasis on wireless.”


Waldo Tobler’s famous First Law of Geography says, "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." This is true for electromagnetic fields and for politics. Tip O'Neill, the former Massachusetts congressman and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives famously said, “All politics is local.”

As a Massachusetts resident, I’m proud to report that Massachusetts legislators introduced seven bills in the current session to address public exposure to wireless radiation. The seven Massachusetts bills are the first steps toward taking action and educating the public on responsible use of today’s technology.

Four of the seven bills have progressed: Two were reported out of committee favorably, and two were granted an extension for the committee to examine the issue further. The other three were sent to study, which means they are done for this session but could be reintroduced by the legislators next session if warranted.

Politics is local. Here in Worcester, knowledge acquired as a matter of necessity by a few electrohypersensitive individuals spread to a few neighbors, then to the school committee, then the city council and senior city officials. There’s still much to do locally, but the same progression has been happening in other cities and towns in Massachusetts. A few state legislators listened, and thus we have the seven bills. Awareness is progressing globally due to grassroots groups around the world. The science, though starved for funding, is also progressing. I’m confident that governments and wealthy individuals will provide more support over time.

Meanwhile, if you have kids or not and if some of what I’ve been writing about makes sense to you, and if you want to take some precautions, see cell phone safety tips for families from the American Academy of Pediatrics.


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