Cellular fact and fantasy in a 5G world
By Dr Kelvin Kemm
JOHANNESBURG - From the time hunter-gatherers ran across the savannah chasing a buck for dinner, people have been immersed in radio waves.
Back then it was radio waves from deep space. But shortly before the Anglo-Boer War, Heinrich Hertz showed that mathematical predictions of the nature of electromagnetism were correct, and radio waves could be intentionally transmitted from one antenna to another.
So today your hi-fi and wall plug show frequency in hertz.
The maths also showed that radio waves and light were the same thing; it was only the frequency that was different. As the 20th century progressed, the entire electromagnetic spectrum was investigated extensively, from the lowest frequencies to the highest.
All manner of radio-wave devices have exploded on to the world stage, particularly over the past half-century, and radio-wave traffic of all sorts has increased dramatically.
So people are exposed to FM radio, TV broadcasts, police radio, aircraft positioning beacons, and, at times, X-rays and other medical scanners.
The first cellphone was developed in 1983. It was a car phone and was about the size of a large briefcase. After that first generation of phones, which worked with “spacial cells”, later generations became smaller and better. There was the second generation, or 2G.
South Africa’s first cellphone small enough to be carried clipped to one’s belt came on the scene just before the 21st century. But they were aimed at top business people and the wealthy elite. Nobody could imagine then that most people would own cellphones, but now South Africa has one of the highest cellphone penetration figures in the world.
The rapid demand for this great idea spurred on the developers. They figured out how to send text messages, with South Africa one of the first countries to do this. Then they found out how to send pictures and video clips.
This meant that developers had to come up with a new generation of phones that could send messages and images, so they created 3G, then 4G. The target was to send even more data and longer videos. This target was 5G, but an interim step was called LTE (Long Term Evolution), or “trying to achieve the 5G target”. Currently, the transmission of data has become more of an issue than voice calls.
A 5G system will be about a tenfold improvement on the 4G system.
So what does this mean? The three big differences are improved speed, bandwidth and latency. Latency is the speed of your phone’s response to a signal.
This means that in a video game you can shoot down space invaders faster because the reaction time between your phone and the system is faster. But there are other implications, such as ordering a pizza to be delivered to your garden chair by drone. The improved 5G system will allow for the faster reaction time and a high data flow rate required to control the drone, and for the drone to use GPS to navigate and land accurately.
To achieve this, 5G will need many more antennas. The simple reason is that the higher frequencies required for high-data transmission don’t travel far, so one needs more antennas to cover a particular area. But the antennas will be much smaller and will fit on a lamp post, rather than needing a large tower. More antennas will also allow for more accurate positioning.
5G is not only for cellphones, but will be able to be linked to all sorts of devices, such as a drone, PC, or car.
Some people worry that the government may be able to spy on you. Yes, they could, if you were interesting enough to concern them, but if they actually do so, it is a legal issue requiring a court order, so it is a societal issue as to what a country will allow. On the other hand, if this really worries you, you can just switch off your phone.
To achieve 5G performance, it is necessary to use higher frequencies. But higher frequencies do not penetrate very far into anything, so you need more antennas, but at relatively low power.
The term “high frequency” can sound scary and some people have taken fright. There have been accusations that the new high frequencies could cause cancer, but they are so low-powered that you can’t get more than about 1 percent of the dose limit that is classified as “safe” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization.
The IARC classifies coffee and pickles as potential carcinogens in the same category as 5G electromagnetic radiation. You would have to eat tons of pickles and drink barrels of coffee for years before you need worry that you’re getting anywhere near the defined “safe dose threshold”.
5G at the extremely low power used will not be a concern at all. When 4G arrived, there was concern about cancer, with some people sharing pictures of trees that had supposedly died because they were close to a cellphone mast.
The range of 5G frequencies being used have been examined by scientists for years, long before 5G for cellphone use evolved, and there is no cause for worry. The evolution into a 5G world will bring efficiencies and new ideas that are now only a dream, just like email and GPS were not so long ago.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants.