Maybe you've heard it from a friend, someone in your family, or a random acquaintance on Facebook: People think that 5G—the fifth generation of broadband cell networks—is dangerous and can actually kill you.
But that's a conspiracy theory. Full stop.
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5G towers are the infrastructure used to hold the network equipment for the accelerated internet access, and while they're functionally different than the cell phone towers that you're used to seeing—because the hardware emits higher frequency radio waves that are much shorter in length—they're essentially innocuous.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bad takes on 5G have gotten even worse, with some people making troubling, baseless claims that there's a link between the coronavirus and the deployment of 5G towers. That fear-mongering has even led people to burn down nearly 80 cell phone towers in the United Kingdom in recent months.
Still, the latest class of iPhones are completely geared toward the faster internet access that comes with 5G, and according to a leading Apple analyst, those iPhone 12 models saw more preorders in the first 24 hours than last year's iPhone 11.
So why do some people swear against 5G while others leap at technology that will give them access to it? How do 5G towers actually work, and why do they seem to spur so much fear, uncertainty, and doubt among a vocal minority?
How Does 5G Work, Anyway?
Unlike the lattice cell phone towers that enable LTE networks—hulking, usually between 200 and 400 feet tall, and interspersed miles apart—5G networks rely heavily on petite units, aptly called "small cells," which are often attached to existing utility poles in urban settings.
To understand why there's such a stark contrast between these kinds of infrastructure, we must first drill into the underlying technology that enables 5G: electromagnetic waves.
The visible spectrum, or all of the light that we can see, exists along the larger electromagnetic spectrum, but it's really just a blip. In the graphic below, you can see the visible spectrum is just between ultraviolet and infrared light, or between 400 and 700 nanometers. That makes sense, because the photoreceptors in our eyes, which are called cones and rods, only detect light between these frequencies.
As energy increases along the electromagnetic spectrum, the waves become shorter and shorter—notice that gamma rays are far more powerful, and have more densely packed waves than FM radio, for example. So, frequency and wavelength have an inverse relationship.
5G operates at a higher frequency than other communication standards we're used to, like 3G, 4G, or LTE. Those networks work at frequencies between about 1 to 6 gigahertz, while experts say 5G sits closer to the band between 24 and 90 gigahertz.
Because 5G waves function at a higher frequency, they're more powerful, but also shorter in length. This is the primary reason why new infrastructure is required for 5G deployment: the waves have different characteristics. Shorter waves, for example, will see more interference from objects like trees and skyscrapers, and even droplets of rain or flakes of snow.
That, in effect, is why small cells are installed on utility poles. In cities, especially, 5G is fast and powerful, but can't travel well through walls or other obstructions. So the more relay points you have, the better the signal will be. After all, you wouldn't want a connected autonomous vehicle to cruise down the freeway with ease, only to lose signal as soon as it drives between two tall building.
Why Are People Freaked Out by 5G Towers?
It's a good question. Frankly, most of the bunk information that conspiracy theorists share about 5G relates in some way to radiation. At its core, radiation is energy, and it doesn't always come in the form of cancer-causing fallout from a nuclear accident, like Chernobyl.
In fact, you could generally refer to radiation as "electromagnetic waves," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Once you understand that 5G (and its predecessors LTE, 4G, 3G, and so on) operates along the electromagnetic spectrum, sending electricity through the air in waves, you can begin to see the connection to the wild theories out there.
Still, that doesn't make the claims accurate. Here are three of the wildest myths, and why they're patently false.
☣️ Myth #1: 5G causes cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, there isn't yet enough scientific evidence to suggest the radiofrequency waves emitted from cell phone towers are harmful, with the caveat that we need more research to determine full safety:
At this time, there’s no strong evidence that exposure to RF waves from cell phone towers causes any noticeable health effects. However, this does not mean that the RF waves from cell phone towers have been proven to be absolutely safe. Most expert organizations agree that more research is needed to help clarify this, especially for any possible long-term effects.
The waves that enable wireless communications are considered to be "non-ionizing radiation," which means they don't directly damage the DNA inside cells. That's how other, stronger forms of radiation can cause cancer. Recall the graphic above that depicts the electromagnetic spectrum: the harmful ionizing radiation includes X-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet rays.
Because 5G uses waves that are higher frequency—and therefore stronger—than those used in 4G or LTE, it's pretty clear where these conspiracy theories originate. But keep in mind that in most cases, 5G won't exceed 100 gigahertz in frequency, a far cry from the harmful radiation, which is measured in exahertz (a unit of frequency equal to 1018 Hertz).
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☣️ Myth #2: 5G towers can spread COVID-19.
It sounds preposterous, but some people actually believe COVID-19 can be spread through 5G towers. The World Health Organization keeps a running tab of all of the wildest myths about the novel coronavirus, and this rumor might make rank at the top.
Unfortunately, it looks like this false information comes from a piece of shoddy research that somehow made it into PubMed, a renowned scientific journal, on July 16.
The team of researchers—mostly composed of scientists from the Department of Dermatology and Venereology at the I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University in Russia and the Department of Nuclear, Sub-nuclear and Radiation Physics at G. Marconi University in Rome, Italy—posit in the abstract that 5G millimeter waves can help to colonize the virus in the human body
As Joel Hruska of ExtremeTech puts it:
Viruses turn human cells into factories to replicate more of themselves. This is literally how viruses work. A virus that requires a radio signal as a vital intermediary (which is what the authors’ claim, given that they identify 5G as “play(ing) the main role”) is a shit virus.
Imagine a bacteria that could only kill you if you like Nickelback. There are not enough Nickelback fans for that to be an effective evolutionary strategy, yet there are somehow far more Nickelback fans in the United States than people living in range of effective 5G service.
The paper in question, titled "5G Technology and induction of coronavirus in skin cells," has since been retracted, but the damage has already been done—literally. Back in April, there were dozens of incidents across Europe wherein people began burning down 5G towers and harassing telecom engineers.
☣️ Myth #3: China is using 5G to spy on us.
This is the closest thing to a valid conspiracy theory that you're going to get with 5G, but it's still pretty low on the totem pole of possibilities.
The theory goes like this: If Chinese companies, with ties to the communist Chinese government, end up implementing the 5G towers that transmit 5G wireless communication, they could spy on us through technological "backdoors" in that equipment.
To make matters worse, heads of major telecom companies are often the ones espousing these views. "We don’t trust anybody, whether they sit in China or the U.S., and no operator should," Scott Petty, chief technology officer at Vodafone UK, told the Financial Times. "Our job is to protect our customers."
Is this actually true? It's hard to say. But in the U.S., President Donald Trump's administration has already blocked Huawei—one of the largest manufacturers of smartphones in the world, notwithstanding Samsung—from securing contracts to build 5G infrastructure in the U.S. That includes base stations, antennas, and computer servers.
It's unclear if Huawei is actually a national security threat or not, or if this is another component of the U.S.-China trade war. The whole debate is even a bit reminiscent of the argument that ByteDance's TikTok is a Chinese surveillance tool.
But in any case, it's clear the U.S. has been proactive in treating Huawei as if it were a certain threat, making the theory that China could spy on us through 5G null and void.
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