Is 5g something to be afraid of?

The deployment of thousands of antennas over the next few years has raised health fears, while environmentalists denounce the energy-hungry technology.

Under the watchful eyes of his medical team and a few journalists, Dr Ling Zhipei completes the world’s first remote brain surgery. No mask, gloves or scalpel were needed. All the neurosurgeon needed was a computer to perform a brain implant on a patient suffering from Parkinson’s disease on March 16, 2019. While Dr. Zhipei operated from a hospital in Hainan, southern China, the patient was in Beijing, over 3,000 kilometers from his surgeon. The technology behind this feat? Very high-speed 5G, which enabled the surgeon’s computer to be connected to robotic arms installed in the operating room and controlled to reproduce his every gesture in real time.

A technical feat, this operation did much to raise the profile of 5G, the new generation of mobile telephony that will take over from 4G. The first offers will arrive in France at the end of 2020, and promise a revolution. “Three major advances will be enabled: a gain in throughput, ten times greater than that of 4G and comparable to fiber, the simultaneous connection of billions of objects and a latency time (the delay between an action and its result, such as sending and receiving a message) reduced to one millisecond, compared with 25 to 40 milliseconds for 4G,” exposes Stéphane Dubreuil, an economist in the telecoms, energy and industry sectors.

But why this speed? Why so much throughput? Éric Piolle, the ecologist mayor of Grenoble (Isère), provided an answer that caused quite a stir: “5G is to enable you to watch porn movies in HD even when you’re in your elevator,” admitting a “slightly provocative shortcut” that launched the debate.

“Covid demonstrated the potential uses of 5G in the healthcare and security sectors,” points out Carole Manero, who is in charge of the 5G dossier for IDATE DigiWorld, a digital consultancy and think-tank. In healthcare, it will enable real-time remote diagnosis (hence the need for very short latency times), the sending of X-rays, and the use of robots to take temperatures or dispense medication. In supply chains or emergency services, it will save time and avoid shortages. “Remember the empty shelves of pasta and flour in our supermarkets? And the explosion in Lebanon: imagine experts receiving images and being able to guide rescue workers remotely. Of course, there are other applications to come, for video games for example, but this seems rather derisory in comparison”, concludes the expert.

While smartphones will be at the foot of the Christmas tree, services will arrive later. “The technology will be launched in two stages. At the start of commercialization, 5G will resemble enhanced 4G, offering users a simple gain in throughput. It’s only from 2023 onwards that the new generation should reach its full power”

To win over the public, focus on entertainment

To make 5G attractive to the general public, operators are focusing on video, streaming and games. Arnaud Vamparys, 5G program director at Orange, enthusiastically describes the trials carried out at Marseille’s Velodrome. “Thanks to 360-degree cameras, we can place the spectator at the heart of a soccer match. They can choose their position in the stadium, among the footballers, change different viewing angles and instantly share the experience with their friends. The user lives what the players live.

On June 21, the 600,000-strong audience at a concert by Jean-Michel Jarre, one of the pioneers of electronic music, were given a foretaste of these possibilities. From his studio in Bougival (Yvelines, France), the artist performed on a virtual reality (VR) platform. The entire audience, connected and equipped with a VR headset, was projected into a universe populated by avatars, starting with that of the musician behind his consoles and those of other spectators, as in a concert pit. “People could see each other, talk to each other and move around. If you danced at home with the headset, your avatar reproduced the same movements in real time,” explains Louis Cacciuttolo, founder of VRrOOm, the company behind this world first.

Manufacturers are ready to play the game

Unlike previous generations, the opportunities offered by 5G are proving to be greater for manufacturers than for consumers. “IoT – the Internet of Things, which involves connecting multiple objects and making them intelligent – will make 5G the disruptive technology we’ve been waiting for,”

The automotive sector is not going to miss the boat. 5G will enable the development of intelligent driverless shuttles on dedicated routes. Île-de-France has earmarked 100 million euros to become the world’s leading region for autonomous vehicles. This has enabled the RATP group to team up with Mobileye in November 2019 to test robot cabs in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. PSA, owner of Peugeot and Citroën, has launched trials in China. In Germany,” reports Carole Manero, “automakers and their suppliers, such as Bosch, have asked for frequencies. They’re aiming for small frequency slots to create their network, intended more for vehicle passengers. But contrary to what you might read here and there, 5G won’t drive cars on the road: because of its reduced range, you’d need an antenna every 300 meters!”

Orange, which launched 5G in Romania in 2019, last July in Poland and soon in Spain, is working with businesses to develop uses. “The port of Antwerp (Belgium) is covered in 5G. It helps with boat towing, but also on the docks, for safety,” explains Arnaud Vamparys. Operators are equipped with vests or connected helmets to protect them from impact. This “protective bubble” has been adapted by a European start-up, Boreal Bike, to equip a bicycle. Scooters and cameras could also be equipped with 5G… We have also worked with Schneider, in an industrial hangar, to connect objects that recognize sounds, shapes and images, thereby eliminating the cables that used to connect machines.”

Who will have access to this new network?

To be able to offer a 5G service across the whole of France, the four mobile operators will be relying on frequencies already used for previous generations, and obtaining new ones. If you’re unfamiliar with these techniques, you just need to know that 4G uses low frequencies that have a wide propagation range, which are combined with slightly higher frequencies to achieve higher throughput. To offer more throughput to their future 5G subscribers, these operators have auctioned off a higher frequency band (3.4 – 3.8 GHz) that offers a good compromise between throughput and coverage.

According to Carole Manero, “five to ten cities should be ‘5G lit’ before the end of the year”. Does this mean that multi-speed mobile telephony is taking hold? The risk of segmentation already exists,” admits the expert. 5G is not designed to cover the whole country. In France, it’s planned for 2030, but we won’t be covering rural areas, it’s not useful.” In compensation, a New Deal imposed by the government obliges operators to ensure 4G coverage of the entire territory, with good speeds for everyone. “Finally!” sigh the thousands of elected representatives who have been calling for this for years.

Should we be afraid of exposure to radio waves?

The roadmap drawn up by the French government in 2018 is intended to be reassuring. Exposure limits to electromagnetic fields are set by the regulatory framework and apply regardless of the technology (2G, 3G, 4G or 5G). The 5G networks to be deployed will have to comply with these limits, she adds.

Insufficient for Stephen Kerckhove, : “These regulations set exposure values that merely avoid the risk of burning. These are thermal effects. The highest exposures identified are around 15 volts per meter. Since 5G will be at a level of 6 volts per meter, this threshold will not be reached, but that doesn’t mean there’s no danger”. “We criticize the government for launching a vast technological program without first assessing its effects on health, or even soliciting a debate on the issue.”

Will the environment suffer?

“Insofar as its deployment requires the installation of thousands of new antennas, and many new connected objects will emerge, 5G will increase the carbon footprint,” points out Hugues Ferrebœuf, Chief Digital Officer of the Shift Project, a think tank dedicated to mitigating climate change. Added to this are the millions of smartphones that will have to be recycled (at best) because they are not 5G-compatible.

Operators are promising “smart” antennas that will transmit on demand and “sleep” modes for connected objects. “By 2025, the 5G network will be ten times more efficient for a gigabyte than 4G. Thanks to these antennas and the software that equips them, we’ll be able to add capacity to the network without increasing consumption”, assures Arnaud Vamparys at Orange. Will this be enough?

“The advent of connected objects will lead to an explosion in uses, and therefore energy requirements. Even if 5G consumes 30% to 40% less energy than 4G for the same usage, it’s not certain that this efficiency will compensate for the increase in energy consumption”

Why so much controversy?

In the spring, videos denouncing the role of 5G in the spread of the pandemic invaded social networks. One thing both have in common is that they are invisible, but so far only Covid is proving harmful. President Trump’s accusations of espionage against Chinese equipment manufacturer Huawei, the world’s leading seller of smartphones and telecom equipment, have heightened fears.

Fears that seem justified when it comes to security: the National Agency for Information Systems Security has asked Bouygues Telecom to remove 3,000 of its antennas in major cities and sensitive areas by 2028. The Viavoice-GCF Observatory on the future surveyed French opinion. Only 27% see 5G as a source of hope (down 12 points on the previous survey), while it is a source of fear for 29%, on a par with facial recognition.

We live in increasingly fragmented societies, with social groups that have very different, even competing, visions,” says François Miquet-Marty, President of Viavoice. Some 5G promoters naturally see technological innovation as a way of improving people’s lives. Others see 5G as a mad rush. This speed is neither accepted nor desired by those who believe that the technological race can be detrimental to life in common, to health, hence the need to share, raise awareness, organize exchanges, debates to understand what this technological upheaval will bring to the French tomorrow.” The joker put forward in front of the 150 citizens at the Climate Convention may well have been a missed opportunity.

Things to remember

  • A new mobile telephony standard, 5G, is about to be launched in certain cities, although we don’t really know what possibilities it will offer.
  • Its capacities will increase over time, as operators obtain new frequencies. Eventually, 5G will be able to connect millions of objects worldwide, as the standard is universally compatible.
  • New uses for the general public are still in the testing phase, and for the moment are focused on video and virtual reality.
  • While several mayors of major cities are calling for a moratorium on 5G in order to organize a public debate, several cities are already equipped with antennas, generally installed on existing pylons.
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