If you think cell phones have changed the world, get ready for the next generation in communications technology. The fifth generation, to be precise, and that's why it's called 5G.
Fifth generation wireless communications systems, or 5G, have already been rolled out in some test cities and are coming soon to the rest of us. Experts say it will bring broadband coverage to places without it and support the expanding universe of devices which depend on wireless communications.
Engineering Professor Jeff Reed says, " Yeah, this is going to happen." Reed is the founding director of Virginia Tech's wireless research program.
"Think of it as channels that are 10 times higher than today's cellular networks. " he says.
He explains, 5G is actually a bundle of several speeds and standards; a super high network for systems that need split second information like self-driving cars and slower speeds to connect ‘The Internet of Things' or IoT.
"For the high data rate communications, it's going to require more cell sites than what we currently use. For the low data rate IoT support, we'll be able to get by with just a few cell sites."
Reed says the low data transmission rates will consume so little energy that batteries could last a decade. He sees the advent of 5G as game changer for services like broadband, especially in rural areas like southwestern Virginia.
"It has the potential to be a much lower cost way of deploying broadband than current wire line systems such as cable TV or fiber to the home."
Reed calls the advent of 5G a true paradigm shift, rivaling the late 90s when the US and the world went wireless.
"The technical performance of 5G is so much better than what we have today. It will open up a whole new set of applications; Virtual reality, augmented reality, it can help us implement something we like to call, at the university, 'just in time learning.' "
And this is where you can begin to imagine the changes to how we live and work with 5G.
For example, says Reed, "Let's say you want to change the air filter in your car. You would hop on google and find a YouTube video and watch the video. Going forward (in a world of 5G) you would just open up your hood, pull out your phone or perhaps your glasses and what you would see in your field of view would be a synthetically generated hand, that would point you to where that air filter is. You would get audio directions and see synthetic hand to show you how to open up the compartment."
The applications for 5G technology are endless. But what about the implications?
Critics are raising concerns about potential health effects -- more power and speed could mean more radiation exposure to people with 5G. Some scientists are calling for more independent studies to be done. Jeff Reed is one of them.
" I think it's everyone's responsibility to look into it; the government and industry as well."
Environmental Reporter for the Nation Magazine, Mark Hertzgaard, has written an expose on what he calls the disinformation campaign behind the 5G rollout.
He says, "Essentially, it's a public health experiment without informed consent."
CONCERNS ABOUT HEALTH IMPACTS
The next generation in wireless communication is coming soon to a transmitter near you. The new 5G platform will transmit more data than the current 4G network and it will be used for everything from cell phones to smart homes, virtual reality to artificial intelligence.
Its widespread rollout, slated for 2019, has some saying 'hold the line' until we know more about potential health effects, if any, of wireless transmissions.
No one has been able to study health effects of a 5G wireless communications platform because it's hasn't been out there very long and so far, it's in just a few cities. Some think it won't increase radiation exposure for users, others say it will and no one is quite sure whether that will turn out to be harmful.
"I think that puts the finger on the key point; We don't know, and we have proceeded since the beginning as if we did know."
Mark Hertzgaard is Environment Reporter for the Nation Magazine. "And the US government allowed cell phones onto the consumer market without doing safety testing... and a multibillion dollar industry grew up around it even though we didn't know. In essence, that amounted to exposing people, first in the United States and then around the world, essentially to a public health experiment. We don't know if cell phone radiation can give you cancer or not. We'll find out in 25 years."
Hertzgaard published the results of an investigation for the magazine called, "How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe."
"When in fact, if you really look at the independent science on this, there's very serious questions about that. And the industry was told that by its own scientists 20 years ago."
A spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association said it could not provide anyone for an interview, for our report, but did give us this statement, which says, in part: The safety of cellphone consumers is important to CTIA and the wireless industry and that it follows the guidance of experts who say the scientific evidence shows no health risk. It goes on to site a study showing the rate of brain tumors has gone down, not up since the 80s when cellphones were introduced.
But if the telecom industry association isn't sounding any alarms about the potential dangers of cell phones, the Environmental Working Group, known as EWG is
"EWG first got involved in the cell phone issue years ago where we posted on our website the SAR, the specific absorption rates for your cell phone and it busted our servers."
Bill Allayaud is legislative liaison for EWG in California. And like pretty much everyone else, he has no intention of giving up his cell phone, but he is calling for caution about the coming of 5G because it would double the number of cell towers in the country and require a new kind of transmitter to be installed every couple of hundred feet, putting them closer to users.
"At a minimum, the cities and counties should be able to say, ‘we want to examine this before we put it in people’s back yards.'"
The National Institutes of Health's Toxicology Program is examining the effects of cell phone radiation on rodents. In February, it released results of a study subjecting them to 2G and 3G radio frequency radiation at levels higher than humans would get from heavy use. It found no evidence it caused brain cancer but did find a low incidence of a rare kind of heart tumor in male rats, though not in female rats. Mark Hertzgaard says his reporting on that study came to a very different conclusion.
"Literally, the day before we published our story in The Nation Magazine, it was too late for us to put it in the magazine, the peer review of that study found there was quote 'clear evidence' that cell phone radiation causes cancer."
A spokeswoman for National Institutes of Health says, National Toxicology Program say it's reviewing the recommendations from the March peer review. The final technical reports are expected in fall 2018.
Some scientists in Europe have signed a petition for a moratorium on 5G until it can be further studied. Most in the US are not as concerned, saying consumers have gotten the message to be cautious with their cell phones. But one thing is certain, 5G is coming.
Every major US wireless company is now racing to build out its new infrastructure to support more wireless communications than ever before.