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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Watkins

5G Explained

Updated: May 4, 2022

For South Australia - 5G is the next major evolution in mobile network technology. As with 4G before it, 5G is focused on mobile data. 5G will promise three major improvements:

Faster network speeds: 5G networks will be capable of download speeds as fast as 20Gbps. The exact speeds an individual user will get will depend on how the network has been configured, the number of devices on the network, and the device in their hands. The 5G specification states that individual users should see a minimum download speed of 100Mbps. That's the fastest NBN speed as a minimum. Lower latency: In plain terms, latency is perhaps best described as the time it takes information to get from your phone to the wider internet and back again. The typical latency for a 4G network is around 60 milliseconds, whereas 5G could decrease this to as low as 1 millisecond. This massive decrease in latency will be vital for technology such as self-driving cars, where every millisecond could make a difference in preventing a crash. More simultaneous connections: 5G will allow more devices to connect to the network at the same time. While smartphone usage continues to grow, this is especially important because 5G is set to facilitate new developments in autonomous cars, connected machinery, and other Internet devices.

These improvements mean you could almost call 5G "Fibre to the Phone". The above have historically been the domain of fixed line networks which need a physical link to the internet.

While 5G will succeed 4G, it will not replace it. 4G and 5G networks will exist simultaneously, and Australian telcos intend to keep 3G networks around until at least 2020.

5G is set to be a viable alternative to the National Broadband Network for some - Optus is already preparing to offer 5G-powered home wireless solutions in the first half of 2019.

However, 5G won't replace the need for an NBN. While 5G networks will bring many of the perks of a fixed line connection, data costs are likely to remain higher on mobile networks for some time.

Optus seems to be positioning its 5G Home Wireless Broadband plan as a genuine NBN alternative, however. Rather than offering sky high 5G speeds, Optus says customers on its 5G home service are more likely to experience speeds around 100Mbps - similar to a top-tier NBN plan. Optus will charge $70 per month for an unlimited data 5G Home Wireless Broadband plan, while its NBN plans currently start at $85 per month on the NBN 50 speed tier.  

Telstra on the other hand sees 5G as a complementary product and is not positioning it as an NBN alternative. 

What's the issue with cellular signals?

Radiation is the emission of energy from any source. That means that even heat that comes from your body counts as radiation. But some forms of radiation can make you sick.  

We can organize types of radiation by their levels of power on the electromagnetic spectrum. Bigger wavelengths with lower frequency are less powerful, while smaller wavelengths at higher frequencies are more powerful. This spectrum is divided into two distinct categories: ionizing and non-ionizing.

Ionizing radiation, which includes ultraviolet rays, X-rays and gamma rays, are the harmful forms. The energy from ionizing radiation can pull apart atoms, and it's known to break the chemical bonds in DNA, which can damage cells and cause cancer. This is why the FDA warns against having unnecessary X-rays. It's also why exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer.

Non-ionizing radiation has lower frequencies and bigger wavelengths. It doesn't produce enough energy to break apart the chemical bonds of DNA. Examples include radio frequency, or RF, radiation such as FM radio, TV signals and cellphones that use traditional 3G and 4G service.

Microwave and millimeter wavelength radiation, which is one of the key blocks of spectrum that 5G service will use, is also considered non-ionizing (as is visible light) and doesn't produce the kind of energy that directly damages cells. Common devices, such as Wi-Fi routers, garage door openers, airport security scanners and walkie-talkies, use lower-frequency microwaves.

Does this mean that cellphone radiation doesn't cause cancer?

It's complicated. Some experts suspect that the radiation from these devices could damage cells via another biological mechanism, such as oxidative stress in cells, which leads to inflammation and has been found to cause cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular, neurological and pulmonary diseases. Out of the thousands of studies that have been conducted over the past two decades, the results are mixed. Most of the studies published so far on the use of traditional cellphone service in the RF range haven't found a link with the development of tumors, according to the American Cancer Society.

But the group concedes that the majority of these studies had significant limitations, which leaves some doubt.

5G is an emerging technology that hasn't really been defined yet.Michael Wyde, toxicologist.

Still, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the National Toxicology Program has formally classified RF radiation as cause of cancer. But in 2011 the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified RF radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" after studies suggested links to a specific type of brain tumor. But the agency also acknowledged that the evidence is limited.

Just for reference, coffee and pickled vegetables are in the same "possibly carcinogenic" category as RF.  

"There is some evidence from epidemiological studies and other research on the biological effects that electromagnetic radiation could cause cancer," said Jonathan Samet, a pulmonary physician and epidemiologist and the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, who chaired the IARC's committee in 2011. "But the whole body of evidence is not strong."

As a result, the committee couldn't say for certain that cellphones are safe, but it couldn't say they're unsafe, either. Samet said more high-quality research is needed on how non-ionizing radiation, such as RF, might cause changes in cells.

Last year, the National Toxicology Program also published final results of its decade-long study on rats, which found a link between exposure to high levels of 2G and 3G cellphone radiation and cancerous heart tumors in male rats. The study also found that the exposed rats outlived other rats that hadn't been exposed to any radiation.

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