5G Harmless or Dangerous?

5G Harmless or Dangerous?

Short for “fifth-generation”, 5G is the next evolution of wireless networks. Roughly every 10 years a new set of standards for wireless communication is released by the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance. With a release date set for 2019, how is this news received? 

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in January 2018, Don Rosenberg, executive vice president of Qualcomm, a US-based semi-conductor and telecommunications equipment company, said that he;

‘believes 5G will change the world even more profoundly than 3G and 4G; that it will be as revolutionary as electricity or the automobile, benefitting entire economies and entire societies.’

So what are the differences between 5G and today’s 4G? The main differences are what you’d expect: greater speed (10 to 100 times faster rates of data transfer) and greater responsiveness (the time between clicking a link and the page actually loading; 5G would ideally reduce this waiting period to around a millisecond).

5G’s other selling point is its ability to support more connections, bringing other objects beyond phones and computers into the fold of wireless technology. This is called the ‘Internet of Things’ or ‘IoT ‘ for short, in which everything from vehicles to thermostats to household appliances will be able to communicate with one another. We’ve covered this in previous issues of this magazine.

This is wonderful news for some – for others, it strikes fear into their hearts.

The following overview of Gartner’s research into ‘driverless cars’ – or autonomous vehicles (AVs) shows there are still many risk factors that need to be clarified before we blindly let the computers take control of vehicles on our roads, household items, medical implants and all of the other applications where 5G could be used.

Gartner says 5G to pave way for safe Autonomous Vehicle Connectivity

5G networks may be as much as 10 times more efficient than 4G networks. With this new level of network capability, communications service providers (CSPs) can secure future market opportunities with manufacturers of AVs in the fields of driver safety and data processing and management, according to Gartner, Inc.

AV systems and sensors will generate unprecedented amounts of data. This will allow automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to extract valuable data insights while limiting the associated provisioning costs. “CSPs have an opportunity to become strategic partners for OEMs by applying 5G capabilities to address AV OEM data growth,” said Jonathan Davenport, senior research analyst at Gartner.

By 2025, AVs will upload over 1 terabyte (TB) of vehicle and sensor data per month to the cloud. This is up from from 30 gigabytes (GB) from advanced connected cars in 2018. “To seize the opportunity, CSPs need to make sure 5G is included in the design of future vehicles, in the fields of safety and connectivity, where the biggest chances lie,” said Mr. Davenport.

5G will also provide passengers of AVs with high-quality infotainment services. “As a result, 5G networks make CSPs an important partner for enhanced vehicle systems, be it for safety, data analytics or entertainment,” added Mr. Davenport.

Remote Control Increases Safety

Further opportunities for 5G technology to expand and enhance AV safety systems exist. This is fostered by regulators’ examination of the safety performance of AVs.

Recent incidents (crashes killing pedestrians) involving AVs have sparked negative press and underscored the importance of public safety in self-driving cars. These events have also highlighted the challenges facing the industry to develop autonomous driving systems that can guarantee a safety performance above that of human drivers.

“AVs periodically face a set of conditions they cannot immediately navigate, which results in the need for a vehicle-human handover,” explained Mr. Davenport. “This handover deactivates the autonomous mode and hands over control to a human driver — but such a handover is not always possible. One potential solution for these scenarios where a handover to the human driver fails is to use remote pilots. Human pilots can be the recipient of a planned remote handover or help recover an AV that has become stuck.”

The safe execution of human-led remote control of AVs would require the reliability and low latency that 5G networks could provide. Once initiated, the technology would allow human technicians in remote facilities to assess live video feeds and vehicle diagnostics from the AV, and take over driving control virtually.

As the regulatory environment for AVs continues to evolve, regulators will likely begin to require remote control capabilities from AV OEMs or operators to improve safe operation on public roads. California-based start-up, Phantom Auto, is developing remote control solutions for AVs using cellular connectivity. Similarly, Swedish truck and bus OEM, Scania, has conducted tests with Ericsson for 5G remote control capabilities for its public buses.

CSPs Must Act Immediately

5G is not a technology that can be fully deployed right now, and Gartner expects that it will generate only limited benefits for AVs in the next five years.

“By design, AVs cannot rely on mobile networks such as 5G for core functionality, but must utilise multiple technologies to meet performance and safety design objectives,” added Mr. Davenport. “Nevertheless, 5G networks will play a crucial role in handling the massive amounts of data generated by AVs and their users for all kinds of purposes, including safety, connectivity and entertainment.”

CSPs must act now to secure future market opportunities by ensuring that 5G is part of the AV design process. OEMs will need comprehensive end-to-end data solutions to streamline their management of data connectivity, storage and analytics.

“In addition to offering solutions, CSPs have to build support for their 5G technologies and establish them as the de facto communication standard. This would be best achieved by supporting standards committees and working with local governments to facilitate the development of advanced use cases, such as metropolitan traffic management,” concluded Mr. Davenport.

But what of its other applications? How dangerous are people saying it could be?

In a medical report published by Science Direct, Towards 5G communication systems: Are there health implications? by Agostino Di Caula, the viewpoint is that this should not be something the world rushes into without looking at the potential harm these fast, strong radio frequency electromagnetic field (RF-EMF) produced by the 5G towers might have on the human body.

The report covers the fact that RF-EMF promote oxidative stress, a condition involved in cancer onset, in several acute and chronic diseases and in vascular homeostasis. Although some evidences are still controversial, the WHO IARC classified RF-EMF as “possible carcinogenic to humans”, and more recent studies suggested reproductive, metabolic and neurologic effects of RF-EMF, which are also able to alter bacterial antibiotic resistance.

In this evolving scenario, although the biological effects of 5G communication systems are very scarcely investigated, an international action plan for the development of 5G networks has started, with a forthcoming increment in devices and density of small cells, and with the future use of millimeter waves (MMW). Preliminary observations showed that MMW increase skin temperature, alter gene expression, promote cellular proliferation and synthesis of proteins linked with oxidative stress, inflammatory and metabolic processes, could generate ocular damages, affect neuro-muscular dynamics.

The author, Di Caula, states that further studies are needed to better and independently explore the health effects of RF-EMF in general and of MMW in particular. However, available findings seem sufficient to demonstrate the existence of biomedical effects, to invoke the precautionary principle, to define exposed subjects as potentially vulnerable and to revise existing limits. An adequate knowledge of pathophysiological mechanisms linking RF-EMF exposure to health risk should also be useful in the current clinical practice, in particular in consideration of evidences pointing to extrinsic factors as heavy contributors to cancer risk and to the progressive epidemiological growth of non-communicable diseases.


Gartner clients can find more information on the opportunities autonomous vehicles offer to CSPs in the research note “Market Insight: How Mobile Operators Should Accelerate 5G Impact on Autonomous Vehicle Design.”

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