The fifth generation of wireless phone technology, also known as “5G,” is ready to hit the market. 5G networks promise exceptional performance with data rates of up to 20 Gigabits per second at lower latency. That means subscribers can download huge files in an instant without the perceptible lag common to today’s 4G networks. Sounds amazing, right?
This video, for example, highlights some of the advantages of 5G:
However, as providers prepare to roll out 5G, the technology needs to address a couple of problems and hazards that could spell the difference between its success or failure in the marketplace. Let’s take a look at the most pressing problems 5G faces.
5G uses high-frequency “millimeter waves,” a new section of the Very High Frequency (VHF) radio frequency spectrum. This is where physical limits come into play. The higher the frequency of a wave, the shorter the distance it can travel. And so, 5G suffers from its inherent nature as its high-frequency waves can’t travel too far.
In real-world terms, this impacts providers not only because network performance could be a persistent issue, but because it actually affects their bottom line. And since 5G waves cannot travel as far as 4G, providers will have to build more nodes closer together. This means they have to spend more to ensure that key subscriber areas are covered.
Yet another concern is that even if you are standing close to a 5G node, your service may still suffer. 5G waves do very well when the connected device is within the node’s unobstructed line of sight. Testers have reported speeds of nearly 2Gbps. To put things in perspective, at this speed, you can download an entire season of your favorite TV series in mere seconds. But if there are obstacles like walls and buildings, the service could sputter and fail even if the node is just a few hundred feet away.
In 2000, a school district in Florida commissioned a physicist to study the possible long-term health risks of exposure to wireless computer and phone technologies. Dr. Bill P. Curry concluded that exposure to wireless devices was likely to be a serious health hazard and backed his conclusion with evidence. Dr. Curry’s study resonated with the education sector and is, in large part, the reason why there is significant concern over the health hazards of using 5G wireless technology.
The New York Times, on the other hand, called this out as much ado over nothing. In an article about the health risks of 5G, the author said that Dr. Curry failed to consider the shielding effect of human skin, which blocks even-higher frequencies that ultraviolet waves emit. The conclusion was also very logical and backed by evidence. The author ended the argument with a statement from a cancer researcher at the University of Oxford, “If phones are linked to cancer, we’d expect to see a marked uptick. Yet we do not.”
Still, better safe than sorry, right? So, a growing number of concerned groups are clamoring for more conclusive research in this area. It may not be yet apparent if 5G poses health risks, but it is equally unclear if there aren’t any. If there is conclusive evidence that 5G can indeed harm our health, then perhaps developers can tweak the technology to make it safe. The telecommunications industry can also take the initiative and offer protective devices that shield users from the ill effects, if any, of high-frequency waves.
And then there’s the cost of the new technology to the consumer. As earlier mentioned, providers will need to build new infrastructure and a lot of it to implement 5G. Can you guess who will eventually foot the bill? Why, the subscribers, of course! Unfortunately, the new network requires totally new apparatus from end to end. Providers need new backbone equipment and end-user devices because 5G isn’t compatible with existing 4G gear.
New equipment means new learning requirements for all service providers down the line—from developers and technicians to customer support and sales personnel. Everyone must be trained to understand and assist users with using 5G. And all these will impact overall costs.
The prospect of very high speeds offered by 5G is exhilarating. But technical performance challenges need to be addressed first. At the same time, issues related to potential 5G effects on our health should be discussed conclusively once and for all, so measures can be taken to make them more benign. Only when these two pieces of the puzzle fall into place can we enjoy faster wireless Internet access.