Topic in focus

5G NETWORKS AND PUBLIC HEALTH PROTECTION

We are witnessing an unprecedented pandemic in our time, caused by a coronavirus. Currently, over 3,5 milion people worldwide have been registered as infected, with over 240,000 persons deceased as a result of this infection. These are unfortunately not final results. All countries, whether they are developed, developing or underdeveloped, are affected (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/). In the moment when the humanity is faced with a global economic lockdown, concerns over the everyday life and the fear from the pandemic, many comments have emerged, primarily on social media, blaming 5G networks for the outbreak of COVID-19. This type of what is known as “conspiracy theory” has already been debunked, prompting YouTube, Facebook and similar platforms to ban the problematic content and point to the reliable sources of information.

Due to an outbreak of false claims, scientifically ungrounded myths and some of the most bizarre theories, several countries have already experienced vandalism and acts of destruction of the mobile telephony equipment, under the pretext that the 5G equipment mounted on the masts had a double negative impact on human health: first, through some sort of 5G virus transmission and second, by deteriorating the immune system, making it easier for the virus to spread among the population. Neither of the claims has been scientifically supported and both have been qualified as the worst possible fake news in this time of the pandemic. In the UK, Netherlands and Belgium, even at one locaion in Croatia, dozens of telecommunications masts have been demolished, the majority of which did not even have 5G equipment on them, giving evidence of the state of mind of the perpetrators, encouraged by disinformation disseminated over the social media.

It is very important to state clearly and unambiguously that there is no scientifically confirmed connection between the 5G technology and the coronavirus. The recent WHO (World Health Organization) statement asserts that the novel coronavirus cannot be transmitted through radio waves or mobile networks (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters). COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets or by eye, nose or mouth contact with freshly contaminated surfaces. After all, COVID-19 is present in many countries with no 5G network at all.

The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) published in March 2020 its latest guidelines for limiting exposure to electromagnetic fields in bands 100 kHz to 300 GHz (https://www.icnirp.org/cms/upload/publications/ICNIRPrfgdl2020.pdf). The Guidelines have been elaborated in accordance with the reports of the WHO, the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) and the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM), on the effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields and possible consequences for human health. Based on all indicators, the reports reveal that the only confirmed effect on human health caused by exposure to electromagnetic fileds – and this happens when mobile telephone is held close against the head during a telephone call – is a rise in local tissue temperature, accompanied by changes in cell membrane permeability and nerve stimulation. The reports are fairly convincing in asserting that no harmful effect of electromagnetic radiation has been confirmed with regard to causing cancer or stimulating the growth of tumors, or any harmful effect on the fertility, pregnancy, development of fetus and children, immune system, brain functions, hearing, eyesight, onset of neurodegenerative illnesses, neuroendocrine system, cardiovascular or nervous system. The final conclusion is that during the exposure to levels below the limits stipulated in the ICNIRP Guidelines, there is no evidence of harmful effects on human health and no evidence of any mechanisms or interactions predicting possible harmful effects causing health impairments due to the exposure to electromagnetic radiation below the prescribed limit values. This type of radiation belongs to the group of non-ionizing radiations, that do not affect the molecular structure, unlike ionizing radiation (X-rays). The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has listed exposure to elecromagnetic radiation, which is within currently recommended international and European limits, as considered potentially less dangerous than consumption of red meat or night shift work (http://publications.iarc.fr/126).

The new ICNIRP guidelines indicate that, along with minor adjustments of measurement methods and limits, current limits of exposure to electromagnetic radiation are applicable in case of radio frequency bands assigned for the operation of 5G networks as well.

5G technology uses the same portion of the radio frequency spectrum already in use by 3G and 4G networks, but it also operates in higher frequencies. Levels of the 5G network electromagnetic field radiation are within the limits of the applicable international standards defined by the ICNIRP. When comparing radiation levels of the existing 3G and 4G base radio station transmitters with radiation levels of a 5G base radio station transmitter, it should be taken into account that 5G transmitters use smaller antennas and operate on lower power, compared to a 3G or 4G transmitter, precisely due to their need for a denser network, consequently implying that the level of exposure to electromagnetic radiation from 5G antennas is therefore lower. A recent research by the European Commission has revealed that, when 5G technology is introduced in urban areas, along with 4G technology already in use, only a moderate cumulative increase in the total exposure to electromagnetic radiation can be expected. It is an already known fact that, the further from the user a base radio station is located and “the worse” the signal is, the higher the user’s mobile terminal radiation gets, due to it trying to communicate with the base radio station, with the highest impact on the user in this case being made by his or her mobile terminal.

Implementation of the new mobile telephony generation (5G) will enable the improvement of the existing characteristics and technologies already in use in mobile networks. Allocation of new radio frequency bands in the Final Acts of the World Radiocommunication Conference WRC-19 has furthered the development and application of this technology. All the factors taken into account, the process of introduction and implementation of 5G technology is irreversibly taking place all around the world, in an aim to support an ever-growing economic activity that has become increasingly dependant on the telecommunications and its well-developed technologies.

During the last couple of years, auctions for radio frequency bands allocated specifically to 5G technology (primarily in the preferred radio frequency band 3.4-3.8 GHz) have been held worldwide. By the end of 2019, almost half of the European countries finished the auction process, i.e. the sale of the relevant radio frequency spectrum portion to the operators, with the majority of the rest of the countries planning to carry out the auction in 2020 and 2021. According to the latest GSA (Global Mobile Suppliers Association) report of April 2020, 5G networks were put in operation for commercial purposes by 73 operators in 41 countries, while operators in another 88 countries announced similar action, with yet another 380 operators being in the testing phase of their 5G networks (https://www.ratel.rs/uploads/documents/empire_plugin/GSA5G.pdf).

For the frequency band 3.4-3.8 GHz to be implemented in 5G technology, it had to be freed from the previous outdated WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) technology. WiMAX  is a telecommunications technology reminding by its architecture of the mobile telephony (wireless broadband access by means of base stations establishing point-to-point connection), which has been present in our country as well, but is to be replaced in the future by 5G technology base radio stations.

In the recent period, RATEL issued four temporary individual licenses for the use of radio frequencies (to Telenor at one location and to Telekom Srbija at three locations), solely for the purpose of testing and research of the 5G network on the territory of the city of Belgrade. After the completion of the testing period and expiration of the temporary licenses, all of the above base stations were disconnected, meaning that, as for the 5G base radio stations, there are currently none operating in the Republic of Serbia.

As part of the EMF RATEL project, which is a system for continuous monitoring of electromagnetic field levels, RATEL has been continuously monitoring changes in electromegnetic field levels, as well as exposure of the population to electromagnetic radiation (https://emf.ratel.rs/eng/index). In this moment, a total of 41 sensors performing continuous measurements are installed nationwide. The results obtained through measurements so far have been far below the allowed electromagnetic field level values. During the temporary license validity period, the operation of Telenor’s 5G base radio station at the Science Technology Park “Zvezdara” Belgrade was monitored as well. No field levels deviating from the prescribed values and applicable standards were recorded at any time. Only the field levels representing but a small fraction of the allowed limits were recorded. A more detailed report on the subject is unfortunately not available, due to the fact that there are no operational 5G networks for commercial service provision in the Republic of Serbia.

A good example of preliminary results regarding electromagnetic field levels of a 5G network in operation is given by the UK regulatory authority Ofcom, which carried out control measurements in the proximity of 22 5G network base radio stations. In the UK, commercial 5G networks started to operate in August 2019 for the FWA (Fixed Wireless Access) users, and in February 2020 for the mobile users. The main conclusion was that exposure to non-ionizing radiation in the areas of measurement was 1%, compared to the ICNIRP reference levels defined for the general public, and that the major share in the total electromagnetic field levels belonged to the “old” technologies such as 2G, 3G and 4G. Detailed report is available at the following link:

https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/190005/emf-test-summary.pdf.

Based on the information provided by the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications prior to the declaration of the state of emergency, the public spectrum auction for the sale of 3.4-3.8 GHz spectrum band, to be used on the basis of technological neutrality (which applies to 5G technologies as well) was planned for the third and fourth quarter of 2020. Pursuant to the Law on Electronic Communications, based on the country’s decision on the spectrum sale and following the adoption of the Rulebook on the minimum requirements for issuance of individual licenses for the use of radio frequencies after the public auction for the above radio frequency band, the public auction procedure is to be carried out by RATEL.

With regard to the development of 5G technology and its impact on the environment, the relevant authorities of the Republic of Serbia remain committed to undertaking all necessary measures to protect human health and the environment, in line with regulations set out by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. In the Republic of Serbia, the limits of exposure to electromagnetic fields for the general public are defined in the Rulebook on the limits of exposure to non-ionizing radiation („Official Gazette of RS“, No. 104/2009), and they are approximately two and a half times lower and far more stringent than the ICNIRP recommendations on limits of exposure to electromagnetic fields in radio frequency bands 100 kHz-300 GHz.