Saturday, September 03, 2022

The Trouble with 5G

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Some of the explanations may not make sense without the animations in the video.]

Did you know that there are now more mobile devices in the world than people? Whether you knew this or not, you probably did know that mobile phones work with the next best thing to magic, which is physics. All that data flies through the air in form of electromagnetic radiation. And since video resolution will soon be high enough for you to check whether I’ve plucked my eyebrows, wireless networks constantly have to be upgraded.

The fourth Generation of wireless networks, four G for short, is now being extended to five G, and six G is in planning. But five G interferes with the weather forecast, and six G brings more problems. What’s new about those wireless networks, and what’s the problem with them? That’s what we’ll talk about today.

The first four generations of wireless networks used frequency bands from four hundred Mega Hertz to roughly two GigaHertz. But there are limits to the amount of information you can transfer over a channel with a limited bandwidth. In fact there’s maths for this, it’s called the Shannon-Hartley theorem.

If you want to transfer more information through a channel with a fixed noise-level, you have to increase either the bandwidth or the power. You can’t increase the four G bandwidth, and there are safety limits on the power. The five G generation tries to circumvent the problem by using new bands at higher frequencies, going up to about fifty Giga Hertz.

Those frequencies correspond to wave-lengths in the millimeter range, which is why they’re called millimeter waves. There’s a reason they haven’t been previously used for telecommunication, and it’s not because millimeter waves are also used as good-byes for in-laws. It’s because radiation at the previously used frequencies passes through obstacles largely undisturbed, unless maybe the obstacle is a mountain. But millimeter waves can get blocked by trees or buildings, which isn’t great if you like calling people who aren’t within line of sight. “Could you pass me the salt, please? Thank you so much.”

So the idea of five G is to collect the signals from nearby mobile phones in what’s called a small cell of the network, and pass them on at low power to a bigger antenna that sends them long-distance at higher power. The five G network technology is currently being rolled out in most of the developed world. Cisco estimates that by next year 10 percent of mobile connections will use 5G.

Five G is controversial because it’s the first to use millimeter waves and the health effects have not been well studied. I already talked about this in a previous video but let me be clear that I have no reason to think that five G will have any adverse health effects. To the extent that research exists, it shows that millimeter waves will at high power warm up tissue, and that’s pretty much it.

However, the studies that have been done leave me wanting. Last year, one of the Nature journals published a review on 5G mobile networks and health. They looked at 107 experimental studies that investigated various effects on living tissue including genotoxicity, cell proliferation, gene expression, cell signaling, etc.

The brief summary is that none of those studies found anything of concern. However, this isn’t the interesting part of the paper. The interesting part is that the authors rated the quality of these 107 studies. Only two were rated well-designed, and only one got the maximum quality score. One. Out of 107.

The others all had significant shortcomings, anything from lack of blinding to small sample sizes to poor control of environmental parameters. In fact, the authors’ conclusion is not that five G is safe. Their conclusion is: “Given the low-quality methods of the majority of the experimental studies we infer that a systematic review of different bioeffects is not possible at present.”

Now, as I said, there’s no reason to think that five G is harmful. Indeed, there’s good reason to think it’s not, because millimeter waves have been used in medicine for a long time and for all we know they only enter the upper skin layers.

But I am a little surprised that there aren’t any good studies on the health effects of long-term radiation exposure in this frequency range. The 5G network has been in the planning since 2008. That’s 14 years. That’s longer than it takes NASA to fly to Pluto!

So scientists say there’s nothing to worry. Well, they also said that smoking is good for you and alcohol doesn’t cross the placenta and that copies of you live in parallel universes. As a scientist myself, I can confirm that scientists say a lot when the day is long, and I would much rather see data than just take word for it. Only good thing I have to tell you on the matter is that the World Health Organization is working on their own review about the health risk of five G which is supposed to come out by December.

Ok, while we wait to hear what the WHO says about the idea of irradiating much of the world population with millimeter waves, let’s talk about a known side-effect of five G: It’s a headache for atmospheric scientists, that’s meteorologists but also climate scientists. And yes, that means 5G affects the weather forecast.

You see, among the most important data that goes into weather and climate models is the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. This is measured from satellites. This movie shows the average amount of water vapor in a column of atmosphere in a given month measured by NASA's Aqua satellite. Accurate measurements of the atmospheric water content are essential for weather forecasts.

You measure the amount of water vapor by measuring electromagnetic radiation that is scattered by the water molecules in the atmosphere. Each molecule emits radiation in particular frequency ranges and that allows you to count how many of those molecules there are. It’s the same method that’s used to detect phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus which we talked about in more detail in this earlier video. The frequency that satellites use to look for water is – you guessed it! – 23.80 Giga Hertz (Table 1, first line).

The issue is now that this water vapor signal is uncomfortably close to one of the 5G bands which covers the range from 24 point 25 to 27 point 5 Giga Hertz. You might say that’s still four hundred Mega Hertz away from the water vapor measurements, and that’s right. But the five G band doesn’t abruptly stop at a particular frequency, it’s more that it tapers out. The emission outside of the assigned band is called leakage. That leakage creates noise. And this noise is the problem.

You see, the weather forecast today sensitively depends on data quality. In recent decades, weather forecast has improved a lot. In this figure you see how much more you can trust the weather forecast today than you could a few decades ago. In 1980, a three-day forecast in the Norther Hemisphere was only correct about 85 percent of the time.

Today it’s correct more than 98 percent of the time. And this isn’t just about deciding whether to bring an umbrella, it’s relevant to warn people of dangerous weather events. A 72-hour hurricane warning today is more accurate than a 24-hour warning was 40 years ago.

The reasons for this improvement have been better computers, better models, but also weather satellites that collect more and better data. And that brings us back to the water vapor signal and the 5G troubles.

The water vapor signal is weak and the strongest contribution usually comes from low altitudes. That’s right, typically the biggest fraction of water vapor in the atmosphere isn’t in the clouds but close to the ground. If you took all the water in the atmosphere and put it on the ground you’d get about 2.5 cm. The clouds alone merely make a tenth of a millimeter.

Those are average values and the details depend on the weather situation, but in any case it means that the water vapor signal is very sensitive to noise near the ground. It’s like trying to hear a whisper in a noisy room. To make matters worse, most of the 5G noise will come from densely populated areas so we’ll get the least accurate forecast where people actually live.

Meteorologists are not happy. This is partly because they had to put away the crystal balls. But the bigger reason is that in 2019, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization in the United States, NOAA for short, did an internal study on the impacts of 5G. In a federal hearing, Neil Jacobs, a former NOAA Administrator, said that the current 5G regulations “would degrade the forecast skill by up to 30 percent, so, if you look back in time to see when our forecast skill was roughly 30 percent less than it was today, it’s somewhere around 1980. This would result in the reduction of hurricane track forecast lead time by roughly 2 to 3 days”

The Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, Petteri Taalas, is also concerned. He said: “Potential effects of this could be felt across multiple impact areas including aviation, shipping, agricultural meteorology and warning of extreme events as well as our common ability to monitor climate change in the future.” His organization calls for strict limits on the 5G leakage.

But well, as they say, there are two sides to every story. On the other side is for example Brad Gillen, executive vice president of the CTIA, that’s a trade association which represents the wireless communications industry in the United States.

He wrote a blogpost for the CTIA website claiming that the effect of five G on the weather forecast is “an absurd claim with no science behind it” He says the study done by NOAA used an obsolete sensor that it’s not in operation. Then he pulls the China card “The Trump Administration has already made its call, and it is time we all get on the same page as China and our other rivals most certainly are today.”

That wasn’t the end of the story. The atmospheric scientist Jordan Gerthan from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, pointed out that the reason the NOAA study mentioned a sensor that isn’t being used on satellites today is that this particular design was cancelled. It was, however, replaced by a very similar one so the argument is a red herring.

In response, a different CTIA guy wrote another blogpost claiming that “5G traffic will be hundreds of megahertz away from the band used in weather data collection”, so he completely ignores the leakage problem and hope his readers don’t know any better. On the other hand, NOAA didn’t publish their study and that didn’t win them any favors either.

However, in 2020, researchers from Rutgers University did their own study. They modeled the leakage of five G into the water vapor signal and evaluated its impact on a weather forecast by using old data. They did a mock 12 hour forecast, one without 5G and then two with different levels of leakage power.

As you can see in these figures, they found that the 5G leakage can affect the forecast up to zero point nine millimeter in precipitation and 1 point three degrees Celsius in temperature at two meters altitude. And it’s not just the value that changes but also the location. That’s a significant difference which would indeed degrade weather forecast accuracy noticeably. Maybe not as dramatic as the NOAA guy claimed, but certainly of concern.

What has happened since? In July 2021, the American Government Accountability Office released a report in which they just said that the arguments about the impact of 5G on weather forecast were “highly contentious.” Despite the lack of consensus, the official US position became to adopt fairly weak rules on the power leakage. They were then adopted by the International Telecommunication Union which is based in Geneva, Switzerland and which writes the global rules.

But most countries in the European Union so far just haven’t auctioned off the troublesome frequency band. Maybe they’re waiting to see how things pan out in the USA, the guinea pig of countries.

And then there’s six G, the 6th generation of wireless networks. This is already being planned, and it’s supposed to use bands at even higher frequencies, above one hundred GigaHertz and up into the TeraHertz range. Six G is supposed to usher in the metaverse era with augmented and virtual-reality and ultrahigh-definition video so we can finally watch live streams of squirrel feeders from New Zealand on our contact lenses.

According to the tech site LiveWire “6G is just the natural progression towards faster and better wireless connectivity…Ultimately, whether it’s with 6G, 7G, or another “G”, we’ll have such incredibly fast speeds that no progress bars or wait times will be required for any normal amount of data, at least at today’s standards. Everything will just be available...instantly.” And who would not like that?

But of course the 6G range, too, is being used by scientists for measurements that could be compromised. For example, NASA measures ozone around 236 GigaHertz, and carbon monoxide at about 230.5 GigaHertz. So we can pretty much expect to see the entire 5G discussion repeat for 6G.

How can the situation be solved? For 5G, the World Meteorological Organization is trying to negotiate limits with the regulating agencies in different countries. They demand that cell towers operating close to weather satellite frequencies should be limited to transmit at minus 55 dBW (Decibel Watt) for out-of-band emission, so that’s the leakage.

The European Commission has agreed on –42 decibel watts for 5G base stations. The FCC in the US set a limit at –20 decibel watt. This is a logarithmic scale, so this is more than 30 orders of magnitude above the limit the meteorologists ask for.

What do we learn from this? When a new technology is developed, scientists usually get there first. And when everyone else catches up, they’ll interfere with the scientists, often metaphorically but sometimes literally.

This isn’t a new story of course. You only have to worry about noise from railways if you have railways and there are actually trains going on them. But a high-tech society also relies on the accuracy of data, so this is a difficult trade-off. There are no easy ways to decide what to do, but I think everyone would be better off if the worries from scientists were taken more seriously in the design stage and not grumpingly acknowledged half through a global roll-out.

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