The Bad Part
5G is good, and 5G is fast, and more efficient. 5G is massively over-hyped, so you need to know what 5G fantasies are not be be believed. But is 5G actually harmful?
The not bad part
First, though, the part that isn't harmful: Along with 5G hype, there has been a lot of 5G scaremongering on social media and fringe publications. Some articles claim that radio waves in the millimeter wave range of frequencies can do harm at the very low power levels used in mobile networks. The same scares were published regarding previous generations of mobile radios. However, since the early days of analog mobile phones, the amount of power emitted by your phone's radios has declined by two orders of magnitude.
The radio in your phone radiates a few milliwatts of power. Milliwatts are thousandths of a watt. The base station radios in a 5G network radiate in the range from about one quarter of a watt to 120 watts, the power of an incandescent light bulb. The most powerful AM radio station transmitters in the US radiate 50,000 continuous watts of power. AM radio transmitters have been built that radiate ten times that amount: 500,000 watts. If you are too close to a broadcast transmitter radiating thousands of watts, and you have to be very close, you can be subjected to enough energy to cause a radio-frequency burn. But no ill health effects have been attributed to high power broadcast transmitters when operated safely.
There isn't enough power behind the 5G radio signal to have an effect on the cells of living things, and millimeter wave frequencies are far below those of ionizing radiation, like x-rays and gamma rays, that can cause chemical changes by exciting the electrons in chemical bonds as they penetrate materials, including living things. In fact, the entire radio spectrum, from lo-tech AM radio bands to the upper reaches of millimeter wave are all at lower frequencies than infrared light, which is in turn, below that of visible light, which in turn is far below that of ionizing radiation.
Don't fear your phone or nearby cell site.
Where wishful thinking is bad
Unfortunately there are aspects of 5G that are outright bad:
Deep packet inspection is designed-in
"Edge computing" means "not neutral"
5G positions incumbent network operators as "too big to fail"
5G is portrayed as a strategic issue critical to national security
The nosey network
The ability of 5G networks to guarantee the ability to deliver large critical flows in limited bandwidth and the ability to deliver low latency depends on the ability to discriminate between traffic. Some of this will be pre-configured for, for example, emergency communications. But, in many cases, 5G features depend on deep packet inspection. This means the network is looking at the content of your traffic and deciding how to treat it. This compromises end to end security, network neutrality, and, obviously, privacy.
Too smart to be neutral
Network neutrality is key to innovation: The low cost of launching a new internet application using on-demand computing and storage resources from providers like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others has created an explosion in innovation. The ability to deliver access to app back-end processing on these cloud services is made possible by network neutrality. But the 5G concept of pushing computing resources out into the network, near the network "edge," is an attempt to challenge the current internet cloud architecture, and, crucially, an attempt to gain significant revenue for a network that is more expensive to operate.
Having to negotiate with a mobile network operator for transport priority, storage, and computing resources in a 5G "edge computing" architecture makes launching apps much slower and more expensive.
A debt-laden industry builds an expensive new network
Not the least risk in 5G is the impact of capital requirements on a highly indebted industry. 5G's requirements for the number of radios, how they are connected, and the fiber network and new network nodes required to build the complete vision of 5G puts network operators on a collision course with property owners, local governments, and bond markets.
The two largest US mobile network operators, AT&T and Verizon roughly doubled their long term debt from about $60 billion, each, in 2010 to about $120 billion, each, in 2017. In the same period, operating cash flow remained roughly flat for AT&T, and declined for Verizon. (Source: lightreading.com)
Debt is not the only problem. US wireless customers pay more for data than all but the Swiss and Koreans. US mobile network operators are caught in a three-way squeeze between pressure to cut their prices, the costs of rolling out 5G, and the need to maintain their debt ratings.
The strains are showing: Among leading industrial nations, although the US supposedly has excellent 4G availability, the US ranks poorly for network speed and latency. (source: opensignal.com) Network performance is strongly linked to capital spending. How can carriers deliver orders of magnitude better performance in 5G if they underperform in building and operating their 4G networks?
In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published a study indicating US carriers have substantially overstated their coverage maps. (Source: https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-361165A1.pdf) The US carriers' networks are starting in a position of capital deficiency to provide the LTE coverage advertised to retail customers. Fudging the coverage maps may account for the oddity that US LTE performance is sub-par while availability is, supposedly, good.
The reasons network operators overstated their coverage are complex, and involve subsidies available to small rural network operators. The take-away is that carriers are not above some gamesmanship to gain an advantage, or a subsidy, or even to deny a subsidy to companies they may someday acquire.
That's a nice stream you got there pity If It got throttled
When network operators get their profits squeezed, they will reach for any opportunity to increase revenue. The most straightforward way to do that is to raise prices, which are already high in the US. There are worse ways to increase revenue.
A likely outcome of 5G providing more bits is that more passive media consumption will happen on mobile networks. "Passive media" is anything that isn't an app, like books, music, and video. Video dominates the share of bits that are sent over the internet backbone, and faster networks will encourage more video to be consumed. Apps, games, e-commerce etc. are each a tiny amount of traffic, by comparison.
Network operators will have a difficult time charging their customers for passive media because the typical customer has no idea that watching a video uses more network capacity than everything else they did that week. Overages and throttling all network traffic for a customer makes for angry customers.
This leaves the media providers, like Netflix, which, by itself, accounts for a large fraction of internet traffic as possible sources of additional revenue. Leaning on services like Netflix, Amazon Video, Disney, HBO, etc. to pay for better performance for their streams will be tempting. It amounts to an indirect price increase to end-customers.
Hyping the 5G gap
Financial pressure on US network operators is one reason why part of the 5G hype is that 5G is a national strategic priority. They spread anxiety that China, the bogeyman of the day, will overtake the US if the US does not embark on a crash program of 5G upgrades, with government money and giveaways like free access to municipal resources like utility poles and curbside locations for network equipment.
In fact, China's own network operators are cautious. Yang Jie, chairman of China Mobile stated, in 2019:
"Capital expenditure, including 5G, will be lower than last year's total amount."
China Unicom will...
"tighten the purse strings on 5G as it requires huge amount of investment."
...said Chairman and CEO Wang Xiaochu.
These are not the words of economic soldiers in a command economy marching lockstep toward 5G domination. But that hasn't stopped analogies to a "missile gap." In an opinion piece in Newsweek Newt Gingrich, writes:
"Go is an ancient Chinese board game based on encirclement and territorial control. It is the most ancient and complicated board game in the world. Beijing is engaged in a concerted strategy of encirclement and control of wireless. But too many nations in the West are content to let the chips fall where they may.”
It can't go unremarked that the 1970s called Newt and wants their "clever asian" trope back. On the other hand, it's good to see Newt has let go of free market dogma. He proposes a remedy to 5G problems: a government funded nationwide 5G network:
The project should be nationwide, with broad geographic coverage—in contrast to current operators’ plans for targeted, urban-specific 5G rollouts, which leave rural America in a 3G or 4G world. This will benefit those on the wrong side of the digital divide while making possible a wider range of innovative uses of the network. These include precision agriculture, automotive and trucking telemetry, telemedicine, and many other advancements.
This closes the circle perfectly. All the fantasy use cases get implemented, and mobile network operators' debt doesn't increase. The peril from China is held at bay. America strides forward into the 5G future.
Let's get small
Some aspects of 5G are open questions. One that will help you frame the differences between types of radios and engineering trade-offs is the proposed use of 5G for the Internet of Things (IoT).