Beginning 2020, the 5th generation of wireless technology is expected to be widely implemented throughout the world. The new network, called 5G, promises to provide faster browsing speed, with a higher capacity to use more devices. However, while companies from countries such as the United States and China are competing to be the first to deliver 5G to the consumer, the environmental impacts of the new network are being overlooked. In a time when the environment is at its most delicate state, overlooking these impacts is extremely risky for future generations.
The main environmental issues associated with the implementation of the 5G network come with the manufacturing of the many parts of the 5G infrastructure. In addition, the proliferation of new devices that will use the 5G network that is tied to the acceleration of demand from consumers for new 5G-dependent devices will have serious environmental consequences.
The 5G network will inevitably cause a large increase in energy usage among consumers, which is already one of the main contributors to climate change. Additionally, the manufacturing and maintenance of the new technologies associated with 5G creates waste and uses important resources that have detrimental consequences for the environment. 5G networks use technology that has harmful effects on birds, which in turn has cascading effects through entire ecosystems. And, while 5G developers are seeking to create a network that has fewer environmental impacts than past networks, there is still room for improvement and the consequences of 5G should be considered before it is widely rolled out.
What is 5G?
5G stands for the fifth generation of wireless technology. It is the wave of wireless technology surpassing the 4G network that is used now. Previous generations brought the first cell phones (1G), text messaging (2G), online capabilities (3G), and faster speed (4G). The fifth generation aims to increase the speed of data movement, be more responsive, and allow for greater connectivity of devices simultaneously. This means that 5G will allow for nearly instantaneous downloading of data that, with the current network, would take hours. For example, downloading a movie using 5G would take mere seconds. These new improvements will allow for self-driving cars, massive expansion of ‘Internet of Things’ devices use, and acceleration of new technological advancements used in everyday activities by a much wider range of people.
While 5G is not fully developed, it is expected to consist of at least five new technologies that allow it to perform much more complicated tasks at faster speeds. The new technologies 5G will use are millimetre waves, small cells, massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output), beam forming, and full duplex. Working together, these new technologies will expand the potential of many of the devices used today and devices being developed for the future.
Millimetre waves are a higher frequency wavelength than the radio wavelength generally used in wireless transmission today. Higher frequency waves allow for more devices to be connected to the same network at the same time, because there is more space available compared to the radio waves that are used today. These waves are much longer than the waves expected to be used for 5G. The waves in use now can measure up to tens of centimetres, while the new 5G waves would be no greater than ten millimetres. The millimetre waves will create more transmission space for the ever-expanding number of people and devices crowding the current networks. The millimetre waves will create more space for devices to be used by consumers, which will increase energy usage, subsequently leading to increased global warming.
Millimetre waves are very weak in their ability to connect two devices, which is why 5G needs something called “small cells” to give full, uninterrupted coverage. Small cells are essentially miniature cell towers that would be placed 250 meters apart throughout cities and other areas needing coverage. The small cells are necessary, because the millimetres cannot easily pass through solid objects and are even easily intercepted by rain. The small cells could be placed on anything from trees to street lights to the sides of businesses and homes to maximize connection and limit “dead zones” (areas where connection is lost).
The next new piece of technology necessary for 5G is massive MIMO, which stands for Multiple Input Multiple Output. The MIMO describes the capacity of 5G’s base stations, because those base stations would be able to handle a much higher amount of data at any one moment of time. Currently, 4G base stations have around eight transmitters and four receivers which direct the flow of data between devices. 5G will exceed this capacity with the use of massive MIMO that can handle 22 times more ports. Figure 1 shows how a massive MIMO tower would be able to direct a higher number of connections at once. However, massive MIMO causes signals to be crossed more easily. Crossed signals cause an interruption in the transmission of data from one device to the next due to a clashing of the wavelengths as they travel to their respective destinations. To overcome the cross signals problem, beam forming is needed.
To maximize the efficiency of sending data another new technology called beam forming will be used in 5G. For data to be sent to the correct user, a way of directing the wavelengths without interference is necessary. This is done through a technique called beam forming. Beam forming directs where exactly data is being sent by using a variety of antennas to organize signals based on certain characteristics, such as the magnitude of the signal. By directly sending signals to where they need to go, beam forming decreases the chances that a signal is dropped due to the interference of a physical object.
One way that 5G will follow through on its promise of faster data transmission is through sending and receiving data simultaneously. The method that allows for simultaneous input and output of data is called full duplexing. While full duplex capabilities allow for faster transmission of data, there is an issue of signal interference, because of echoes. Full duplexing will cut transmission times in half, because it allows for a response to occur as soon as an input is delivered, eliminating the turnaround time that is seen in transmission today.
Because these technologies are new and untested, it is hard to say how they will impact our environment. This raises another issue: there are impacts that can be anticipated and predicted, but there are also unanticipated impacts because much of the new technologies are untested. Nevertheless, it is possible to anticipate some of detrimental environmental consequences of the new technologies and the 5G network, because we know these technologies will increase exposure to harmful radiation, increase mining of rare minerals, increase waste, and increase energy usage. The main 5G environmental concerns have to do with two of the five new components: the millimetre waves and the small cells.
The Impact of 5G on Ecosystems
There is some evidence that the new devices and technologies associated with 5G will be harmful to delicate ecosystems. The main component of the 5G network that will affect the earth’s ecosystems is the millimetre waves. The millimetre waves that are being used in developing the 5G network have never been used at such a scale before. This makes it especially difficult to know how they will impact the environment and certain ecosystems. However, studies have found that there is some harm caused by these new technologies.
The millimetre waves, specifically, have been linked to many disturbances in the ecosystems of birds. In a study by the Centre for Environment and Vocational Studies of Punjab University, researchers observed that after exposure to radiation from a cell tower for just 5-30 minutes, the eggs of sparrows were disfigured. The disfiguration of birds exposed for such a short amount of time to these frequencies is significant considering that the new 5G network will have a much higher density of base stations (small cells) throughout areas needing connection. The potential dangers of having so many small cells all over areas where birds live could cause whole populations of birds to have mutations that threaten their population’s survival. Additionally, a study done in Spain showed breeding, nesting, and roosting was negatively affected by microwave radiation emitted by a cell tower. Again, the issue of the increase in the amount of connection conductors in the form of small cells to provide connection with the 5G network is seen to be harmful to species that live around humans.
Additionally, Warnke found that cellular devices had a detrimental impact on bees. In this study, beehives exposed for just ten minutes to 900MHz waves fell victim to colony collapse disorder. Colony collapse disorder is when many of the bees living in the hive abandon the hive leaving the queen, the eggs, and a few worker bees. The worker bees exposed to this radiation also had worsened navigational skills, causing them to stop returning to their original hive after about ten days. Bees are an incredibly important part of the earth’s ecosystem. Around one-third of the food produced today is dependent on bees for pollination; making bees are a vital part of the agricultural system. Bees not only provide pollination for the plant-based food we eat, but they are also important to maintaining the food livestock eats. Without bees, a vast majority of the food eaten today would be lost or at the very least highly limited. Climate change has already caused a large decline in the world’s bee population.
The impact that the cell towers have on birds and bees is important to understand, because all ecosystems of the earth are interconnected. If one component of an ecosystem is disrupted the whole system will be affected. The disturbances of birds with the cell towers of today would only increase, because with 5G a larger number of small cell radio-tower-like devices would be necessary to ensure high quality connection for users. Having a larger number of high concentrations of these millimetre waves in the form of small cells would cause a wider exposure to bees and birds, and possibly other species that are equally important to our environment.
About Author: Sajid Mostaque has total work experience of 3 years in corporate world. He is a Program Implementation Associate. He is working with STEM Learning from last 9 months.