5G: progress or harm?

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By Francesca Giulia Pagano scholarship holder and master degree student in Electronic Engineering and Adriana Brancaccio, associate professor of Electromagnetic Fields at the Department of Engineering

Since the first developments in radio and television telecommunications, which use the electromagnetic field as a "vector" for transporting information, people have harboured suspicions and fears regarding wireless technology. In particular, it was feared, and still is feared, that exposure to electromagnetic fields would involve health risks. Nowadays, what attracts attention and still partly causes concern are the electromagnetic fields connected to the new 5G standards. But does the population really know what 5G is and what are the changes compared to the previous standards?

With the help of some articles published in 2020 by important newspapers of our country, we will try to briefly give some objective evaluation elements.

First of all, the term "5G" refers to "fifth generation" telecommunications which are based on a vast set of technologies with the aim of allowing a faster and more reliable connection not only between individual users but also between objects and sets of objects, such as smart cars, smart phones, smart homes, sensor networks, and so on. [1] All this can happen thanks to technological advances in the fields of electronics, signal processing, information technology and antennas. But it is precisely on the installation of the latter, which radiate the much feared electromagnetic field, that popular and media attention is concentrated.

The "Corriere della Sera" in an article at the beginning of the year fuelled popular fears about the health risks associated with 5G, quoting  in particular the effect of radiation on cells, stating that "the pulsed radiations emitted by 5G are very more powerful than the standard ones and ten times more pervasive". [2] This type of information does not correspond to scientific truth and misinforms readers, generating confusion and panic.

In this regard, we will try to clarify various aspects.

What are the frequencies used today and which will be introduced in Italy?

From the auction for 5G frequencies proposed by the Ministry of Economic Development in Italy, operators will work using three main frequencies:

  • 700 MHz;
  • 3.7 GHz;
  • 26.5-27.5 GHz;

The first two frequencies have been used for many years for 4G networks and for television broadcasts, while the new frequencies of 26.5-27.5 GHz, precisely because they are higher, are absorbed only superficially at the skin level , without penetrating inside the body.

In any case, it should be noted that the effects on health in the frequency band between 10 𝑘𝐻𝑧 - 300 G𝐻𝑧 have been extensively studied by the scientific community which has provided the legislators with guidelines for the rules to protect citizens. There is a tendency to erroneously associate high frequencies with greater risk, when in reality one should focus on the power value. The limits imposed by Italian laws are particularly restrictive and do not concern the emission of power by the individual operator or device, but refer to the total. Therefore, the addition of new antennas, which worries the population so much, does not imply a proportional increase in the allowed power.

What are the permitted power levels in Italy?

The Italian law sets the maximum value of the electric field at 6 V/m when one is exposed for more than 4 hours. This is an extremely prudential limit, ten times lower than the one recommended by the WHO guidelines and imposed in many countries of the European Union. In terms of power it means that the maximum allowed power density is less than a tenth of a Watt per square meter.

Despite this, many are sceptical and afraid and would like to put a stop to the development of 5G. It is interesting that opponents express their fears on social media, thus using an instrument that is the result of advances in telecommunications technologies. In an article in "Il sole 24 ore", following the period of the lockdown caused by the coronavirus emergency, a statistical analysis of the mentions made on social networks regarding 5G was reported. The study shows that in the two-month period of March-April almost 150,000 mentions were recorded online, with a progressive growth from an average of about 1,000 to about 3,000 in the last period. It has occurred that over time the comments have become unbalanced towards fake news and the connection, without scientific basis, of the development of 5G with the spread of Covid-19. The study shows a balance on the Net Sentiment (the balance between the promoters and detractors of 5G) of only 8% of positive mentions against 27% of negative ones. Even the analysis of the age group is astonishing, as the detractors are on average young people between 18 and 24 years old. [3]

How do local administrations position themselves with respect to the installation of 5G antennas?

The mayors have also largely opposed 5G. Only considering the first months of 2020 alone, bans were imposed on the installation of the antennas necessary for the development of the new network standard in 500 Italian municipalities. In order to ensure compliance with the new standards, the government in the simplification decree of last July prepared an amendment to the 2001 law, which governed the rules for the establishment of antennas and networks for telecommunications infrastructures, limiting the power of veto of the mayors on the matter. In many cases the mayors had appealed to possible health risks, the assessment of which, however, is the responsibility of the regions, which monitor compliance with the legal limits through the Regional Environmental Protection Agencies. [4-5]

Does 5G have harmful effects on our health?

As already mentioned, 5G is the union of different technologies that exploit electromagnetic fields for the transmission of information, their effect  on health has been studied deeply  by the scientific community. At the frequencies we are talking about, only tissue heating was highlighted. This heating depends on the powers involved which, if low enough, cause reversible and harmless effects. But 5G, like other mobile phone technologies, does not require electromagnetic signals of such power as to cause significant increases in the body temperature of exposed subjects, indeed, with the technological advancement in electronics and signal processing, lower powers are always required. Finally, no non-thermal effects were detected, such as the onset of tumours (nor even contracting Covid-19).

What is the expected economic impact of 5G?

There are obviously many sector studies on the economic impact of 5G. For example, we cite a study reported in an article in "Il Fatto Quotidiano", according to which the transition to services based on next-generation 5G networks will produce an overall economic return to Europe of 210 billion Euros while for Italy we are talking about 14.2 billion. The study assesses the costs and benefits deriving from the "full 5G" adoption, i.e. assuming that all the sectors of greatest interest (Smart Production and Logistics, Smart Rural, Smart Urban, Smart Public Services) will soon adapt to the new standard of fifth generation network. [6]

In conclusion, experimentation is over and 5G is currently a full-fledged commercial service. However, the network infrastructures still need to be adapted to make the service fully operational on the national territory. Are we really willing to give up such a significant technological advance for our daily life? Think about what our lockdown would be like now without a fast connection.

References:

[1] https://video.corriere.it/tecnologia/5g-rivoluzione-rete-come-cambiera-nostra-vita-vantaggi-nuova-tecnologia/60736a62-ef3d-11ea-94cc-1f80cc642b17">https://video.corriere.it/tecnologia/5g-rivoluzione-rete-come-cambiera-nostra-vita-vantaggi-nuova-tecnologia/60736a62-ef3d-11ea-94cc-1f80cc642b17">https://video.corriere.it/tecnologia/5g-rivoluzione-rete-come-cambiera-nostra-vita-vantaggi-nuova-tecnologia/60736a62-ef3d-11ea-94cc-1f80cc642b17

[2] https://www.corriere.it/tecnologia/20_gennaio_28/5g-ci-sono-rischi-la-salute-dibattito-scientifico-parlamento-europeo-c617a7ae-41b7-11ea-a986-8b98b73aaf06.shtml">https://www.corriere.it/tecnologia/20_gennaio_28/5g-ci-sono-rischi-la-salute-dibattito-scientifico-parlamento-europeo-c617a7ae-41b7-11ea-a986-8b98b73aaf06.shtml">https://www.corriere.it/tecnologia/20_gennaio_28/5g-ci-sono-rischi-la-salute-dibattito-scientifico-parlamento-europeo-c617a7ae-41b7-11ea-a986-8b98b73aaf06.shtml

[3] https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/col-covid-crescono-rete-menzioni-5g-27percento-negative-ADg7ujO">https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/col-covid-crescono-rete-menzioni-5g-27percento-negative-ADg7ujO">https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/col-covid-crescono-rete-menzioni-5g-27percento-negative-ADg7ujO

[4] https://www.corriere.it/economia/aziende/20_luglio_22/5g-no-divieti-sindacisulle-antenne-decide-stato-0689d710-cc48-11ea-81b7-8c245267730d.shtml">https://www.corriere.it/economia/aziende/20_luglio_22/5g-no-divieti-sindacisulle-antenne-decide-stato-0689d710-cc48-11ea-81b7-8c245267730d.shtml">https://www.corriere.it/economia/aziende/20_luglio_22/5g-no-divieti-sindacisulle-antenne-decide-stato-0689d710-cc48-11ea-81b7-8c245267730d.shtml

[5] https://www.repubblica.it/economia/2020/04/19/news/crescono_i_sindaci_anti_5g_nella_crisi_coronavirus_l_allarme_degli_operatori-254287812/?ref=search">https://www.repubblica.it/economia/2020/04/19/news/crescono_i_sindaci_anti_5g_nella_crisi_coronavirus_l_allarme_degli_operatori-254287812/?ref=search">https://www.repubblica.it/economia/2020/04/19/news/crescono_i_sindaci_anti_5g_nella_crisi_coronavirus_l_allarme_degli_operatori-254287812/?ref=search

[6] https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2020/10/26/5g-le-reti-mobili-di-nuova-generazione-produrranno-un-ritorno-economico-di-210-miliardi-di-euro-per-leuropa/5977989/">https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2020/10/26/5g-le-reti-mobili-di-nuova-generazione-produrranno-un-ritorno-economico-di-210-miliardi-di-euro-per-leuropa/5977989/">https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2020/10/26/5g-le-reti-mobili-di-nuova-generazione-produrranno-un-ritorno-economico-di-210-miliardi-di-euro-per-leuropa/5977989/

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