In this digital and mobile era, people have come to look up to social media for daily news updates. The same medium is also culpable of propagating fake news. The situation has actually aggravated challenges in how the globe is responding to coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Since it is a new phenomenon, there is a lot of new information regarding the outbreak. One of such issues is that 5G technology might have played a part in the crisis. We asked an IT specialist MATTHEWS MTUMBUKA (PhD), who is the chief executive officer of Ubuntu Network to unpack the issue. Excerpts
How best can you define 5G?
5G is the 5th generation of mobile cellular communications technology—its a successor to 4G. The major difference is that 5G is characterised by very fast data rates of up to 1 to 2 giga bytes per second [Gbps] compared with 4G top speeds of approx 50 megabyte per second [mbps]. In practice 4G speeds peak between 10 and 25 Mbps and 5G practical limits are expected between 100 and 200 Mbps. Limitations reducing speeds include effects of multi path fading, interference, network congestion, doppler effects etc. 5G has massive capacity, supporting up to a million devices per square kilometer [km], while 4G supports only up to 100 000 devices per square kilometre.
What would make the 5G technology fast?
Two things make 5G fast. First, 5G deploys what is known as Massive Mimo. Mimo stands for Multiple Input Multiple Output systems, basically many antennas at transmitting side and many antennas at receiving side i.e. both on the ‘tower’ and on the ‘handset’. Also note that my doctoral thesis was on Mimo systems for boosting 4G data rates. At the time—between 2002 to 2005— top speeds were less than 1 Mbps and we wanted to cross 100 Mbps. Combining with a friend’s research [Dr Wasim Q Malik, now Professor at Harvard] ‘Ultra Wideband’, the Ultra Wideband Mimo system achieved data rates beyond 1 Gbps in Oxford labs. We transmitted signals in the 5G band using Mimo systems. We should have been early victims of Covid-19 or Covid-04!
5G deploys what are known as Massive MIMO systems. Massive because they deploy as many as 24 to 128 antennas. This is possible because of the high frequencies at which they operate which means tiny wavelength. MIMO antennas have to be separated at least half wavelengths apart to avoid interference. In my research, I went up to 6×6–6 antennas each side— antennas and that was the highest reported in publications at the time, which goes to show how advanced the 24 to 128 antennas are! Using low band 3G, the antenna array would be huge.
The second measure that makes 5G fast is that it uses high bands which have very short wavelengths. 5G is deployed in 3 types of frequencies low band which are similar to 4G band, mid band [around 2.4 to 4.2 GHz] and millimetre band (24 to 72 MHz). It is the millimetre band that is ‘popular’ in the age of Covid-19.
QSo how safe is the technology?
I guess this is the main interest now about 5G rather than the romantic or ecstatic data rates promised! No one has time for that now, it seems! There are fears that 5G is hazardous because it uses millimeter waves. We wrote above that peak spectrum for 5G is 24 to 72 GHz. This is all within the microwave spectrum. It is scientifically false that microwave signals have ionising effects. Before I spent 3 years in Oxford labs conducting hundreds of experiments and investigations into microwave signal propagation and processing, I had to do a lot of investigation into the safety aspects and the facts known then and now don’t differ after recheck.
Microwave signals go from 300 MHz [1 m] up to 300 GHz [1 mm]. From 300 GHz (1 mm) to 430 TeraHertz [700 nm] and we have Infrared. Basically infrared is hundreds of times smaller in wavelength than 5G signals. In fact people fear 5G because they hear their signals are millimetre long. But we have all played with infrared even at every pay point in the shops. The infrared signal ranges below 1 millimeter to 700 nanometres. Nanometers are a tiny fraction of a millimetre. Let us remember that all bands in near ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwave, radio waves, and low-frequency radio frequency [long wave] are all non-ionising radiation. Ionising radiation causes atomic changes including in human beings. Examples of signals that cause ionising effects include alpha, beta, gamma and Xray radiation. Not microwave or 5G signals at all. 5G can cause ionising effects in science fiction and social media. Not on human body and not in the lab.
QTake us through the effects of Microwave Radiation?
It is well known that the major effect of microwave signal propagation is the heating effect due to the fact that the human body comprises lots of water i.e more than 60 percent; something like microwave signals heat up food in the microwave heater. Even this effect is well controlled via the regulation and standards for mobile devices on limits on amount of power the handset can transmit into the head when the phone is used closely etc. The Federal Communications Commission FCC standards require that mobile devices emit no more than 1.6 Watts of Power per 1 Kg of human body mass. It is scientifically known that within those limits, the heating effects are safe for us. The good news is that 5G signals being very high frequencies use very little, in fact, tiny power. This is per electromagnetic theories.
In a nutshell, what then should be the take home message on 5G and Covid-19?
5G promises huge capacity and extremely fast speeds for uploads and downloads up to 1 to 2 Gbps or a couple of 100s Mbps in practice by using low power short range high frequencies referred to as millimetre waves. Their only effects can be the heating effects not ionising and not Corona Virus or Covid-19. Typically there is 10 years lead time from lab research to standards until a mobile generation is deployed. If 5G caused coronavirus, then in the last decade many research engineers and physicists should have died of Corona in the labs. Let us tackle Coronavirus head on although 5G is fast it is not a fast way for killing coronavirus.