Environment, safety, health: The questions posed by 5G

This article is published in collaboration with Binary.

When we put 5G opponents in one bag, we risk mixing everything up: health risks, destruction of the planet, attacks on network security and beyond that on state sovereignty, mass surveillance. Are these amalgamations including easily and factually deconstructed accusations mixed with real problems enough to disqualify criticism?

No, no more than anti-vacs, anti-waves, anti-science, anti-techno, etc. who joined the anti-5G movement going as far as fires or degradation of radio stations. Responding to questions simply by affirming technological determinism is not sufficient either. The questions, the concerns are legitimate for a technology that will change our lives, according to what is announced.

The environment

Digital technology, in general, raises questions for environmental defenders. In many ways, it has positive effects on the environment. For example, it allows detailed studies of the climate, intelligent management of energy in smart grids, that of engines of all types, from cars to aviation, transport savings with remote work. On the other hand, it participates in the race forward towards ever more productivity and consumption. This very general aspect of the debate will be ignored here, where we will focus on 5G.

On the positive side, 5G was designed from the start to be energy efficient. Knowing that the figures have not stabilized, it should sharply divide the electricity consumption for the transport of a Gigabyte of data; we are talking about division by 10 and ultimately by 20 compared to 4G. While these predictions may be overly optimistic, it should be noted that they are consistent with history, which has indeed seen such improvements from 2G to 3G to 4G. And we could also cite the savings of switching from copper wire to fiber, or from “old” data centers to more modern ones. Digital technology also knows how to move towards more sobriety, which has enabled it to absorb a large part of the explosion in data transferred over the network over the past twenty years.

Part of this explosion, yes, but only part, because you have to take into account the rebound effect. In a very general way, the rebound effect, also called the Jevons paradox, observes that savings (monetary or otherwise) expected due to an improvement in technology can be lost following an adaptation of the behavior of the society. With improvements in technology that have allowed more and more data to be transported, this amount of data transported has been seen to increase dramatically, roughly, doubling every eighteen months. If the recent confinements due to the pandemic have not brought 4G to its knees, it is thanks to the year in advance that operators are forced to take to absorb this growth, entirely due to users elsewhere.

The introduction of 5G will allow this increase to continue, which some believe would result in an increase in the negative impact of networks on the environment.

Of course, we must ask ourselves whether it would have been better by refusing 5G. Without 5G, city-center telecoms networks would quickly have been saturated, which would have led to densifying the networks of 4G stations. We would undoubtedly have seen the same negative impact for a network which would then have ended up malfunctioning massively, because 4G does not support saturation for reasons intrinsic to its technology. Not deploying 5G would not have solved any problem, the real subject is that of sobriety.

In the context of the current deployment, a real question is that of the environmental costs of manufacturing network elements such as radio stations, and especially telephones. You should know that the manufacture of a mobile phone emits much more greenhouse gases (GHG) than its use. If all French people rush in and change their phone to have access to 5G, we end up with a huge cost in terms of GHG emissions. We would have to convince them that it is useless and that we can be satisfied with the “normal” renewal of telephones. It is important to insist here on “normal”: the French change their phone every 18 months, which is not normal at all. While it was indeed necessary when phones were far from their current computing power, it isn't now. And producing all these phones generates a waste of resources, energy and GHG emissions. Beyond the topic of 5G, what are we doing to slow down these replacements? What are we doing so that they do not accelerate to the siren call of the smartphone industry?

Uses should also be questioned. Watching a video on a smartphone consumes several times the electricity needed to watch the same video after downloading by fiber. But the situation is anything but simple. How do you compare watching a course in 4G by a student who does not have another Internet connection to watching a video (which could have been downloaded in advance) in the Paris metro? It is not a question here of deciding for the citizen what he can view according to the context, but just to sensitize him to the question of the environmental cost of his digital choices and to give him the means, if he wishes it, to have more sober behaviors.

Security and mass surveillance

In these dimensions, the effects are contrasted.

For cybersecurity, 5G provides ways to be more demanding, for example, by encrypting end-to-end exchanges. On the other hand, increasing the surface area of ​​hotspots increases security risks. In particular, the virtualization of networks that it introduces opens the door to software attacks. The Internet of Things, potentially boosted by 5G, also raises questions when we see the weakness of the security of connected objects, from the simplest such as low-energy sensors to the most critical such as pacemakers. The risk linked to cybersecurity coming from the Internet of Things is increased by the fragmentation of this market which makes it difficult to converge on a common framework and requirements.

In terms of surveillance, the effects are also mixed. The public authorities are worried that it will be more difficult to intercept the communications of crooks, terrorists, etc. Citizens are worried about the implementation of massive video surveillance. 4G already allows such monitoring, but 5G, by increasing the speeds available, makes it easier. The dreams of dictators can be fulfilled by covering the country with a camera whose flows are analyzed by artificial intelligence software. The nightmare. But 5G cannot be held responsible alone; if this happens, it will also be due to the lack of vigilance on the part of citizens and their elected representatives.

Does 5G and / or electromagnetic wave buildup harm health?

It's an old subject. As these waves are widely used (telecoms, wifi, microwave oven, radars, etc.) and they are invisible, they have been worrying for a long time. Their effects on health have been intensely studied without really allowing to conclude to any harmfulness in a reasoned use. A large majority of specialists believe that there is no health risk provided that the thresholds recommended by the WHO are followed, which already adds significant margins beyond the thresholds where it is believed that there is a risk. It should be noted that some countries like France still go beyond the recommendations of the WHO.

However, other specialists believe that health risks exist. And we generally agree to continue studies to better understand the biological effects of waves, depending on the frequencies used, the power and the duration of exposure. Over time, new questions are raised such as the accumulation of the effects of different waves, and after focusing on absorbed energies and thermal effects, we tackle non-thermal effects.

The controversy crystallizes around “hypersensitivity to electromagnetic waves”. It is a pathology recognized in many countries, which manifests itself in headaches, muscle pain, sleep disorders, etc. Despite the name, medical research has shown no link to exposure to waves. Its causes remain mysterious.

Let us come to the more specific question of 5G. 5G mobilizes different new frequency ranges, around 3,5 GHz and around 26 GHz. With 3.5 GHz, we are very close to frequencies already used, for example by wifi, and frequencies whose effects have been well studied. For 26 GHz, if the use in a general public of such waves is new, we already have studies on such high frequencies. However, the new use of these specific frequencies legitimizes the fact that new studies are being undertaken for them, which is already the case.

One aspect of 5G is naturally also leading to new studies: the MIMO antennas we talked about. They allow the program to be focused on the user. This avoids swinging waves all over the space. On the other hand, the user will potentially be exposed to fewer waves in total, but to higher powers. The context of the exhibition changing so radically leads to redefine the notion of exposure to waves, and perhaps to new standards of exposure. This therefore leads to rethinking even the concepts of measurement.

We conclude this section by mentioning another effect on health that goes well beyond 5G to appeal to all digital: the speed of development of these technologies. Digital technology provides people with the means to improve their lives. This is often the case and, as IT specialists, we like to emphasize this dimension. But, digital technology also imposes its rhythm and its instantaneity on individuals, sometimes (often?) To their detriment. This is especially true in a professional context. At the same time as it relieves us of painful tasks, it can impose inhuman pace. Here are obviously uses that must be rejected. In particular, we must be vigilant to prevent 5G from participating in the dehumanization of work.

Economy and sovereignty

It is difficult to assess the economic impact of 5G, but analysts say it will disrupt many sectors, for example, factory manufacturing and warehouses. It is also expected to lead to new lines of consumer services and the transformation of government services. We therefore hear: The world of tomorrow will be different with 5G, and those who have not taken the 5G turn will be overwhelmed. This is one of the answers put forward to the detractors of 5G, the economic reason. We would replay a little what happened with the Internet platforms: we left too late and suddenly we are struggling to catch up. Without 5G, the national economy would lose competitiveness and we would fall into the third world.

It is difficult to validate or refute such a claim. Would we just give up on 5G for a while or indefinitely? Would it be to adopt another technology? On the other hand, we can ask the question of our place in this particular technique, that of France and that of Europe.

In terms of technology development, unlike other areas, Europe is well placed with two out of three European companies dominating the market, Nokia and Ericsson. We can even say that Nokia is “a bit” French since it includes Alcatel. The last dominant company is Chinese, Huawei, which the United States and others are trying to keep out of the way because it is more or less under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. France is trying to prevent communications from sensitive actors from going through Huawei equipment, which effectively amounts to excluding it for the most part from the French network.

As for uses, French manufacturers seem to be interested at last. European scientific circles and European technology companies are not (too) lagging behind even if we can be worried about American and Chinese dominance in sectors such as electronic components or software, and the truly massive investments by the United States. and China in digital technologies much larger than in Europe. We can therefore be concerned that the European economy and industry are falling behind. It is true that 5G will not be fully present for two or three years. We can hope that this delay will be used to better launch us perhaps when we have better understood the issues, hoping that it will not be too late, that by arriving late, we will not have left the first comers grab the stake (“winner-take-all”).

As we have seen, certain questions about 5G deserve our attention, that we continue research, that we change our uses of cellular technologies. 5G is at the very beginning of its deployment. The subjects crossed challenge the citizen. We want to put this technology at our service, for example, to prevent it from leading to mass surveillance or imposing inhuman working rhythms. We have an obligation to put it at the service of ecology, for example by avoiding too frequent changes of smartphones or untimely downloads of videos on the go. That's why citizens need to familiarize themselves with these topics to choose what they want 5G to be. Deciding without understanding is rarely the right solution.

Serge Abiteboul, Research Director at Inria, member of the Académie des Sciences, Inria et Gerard Berry, Professor emeritus in computer science, France secondary school

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