Crystallising the potential of 5G

Written by Patrizia Toia on 5 December 2019 in Opinion

The coming of 5G seems to offer huge potential but realising this safely and effectively will require detailed investigation and careful planning, writes Patrizia Toia.

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The diffusion of mobile telephony first and the subsequent introduction of smartphones have created a “revolution in the revolution”.

This is because they have brought all the disruptive power of digital technology into the pockets of all citizens, opening the door to a range of applications that are fundamentally changing our society and our economy.

However, all these innovations have hit a limit created by the capacity of mobile devices to connect to the internet with sufficient bandwidth, reliability and minimal latency.


The introduction of the fifth generation of mobile connection, 5G, now promises to overcome the current limitations of existing mobile devices. More importantly, 5G could enable a new wave of technologies and applications, based on its novel infrastructure for smart cities, advanced manufacturing, healthcare systems and connected cars.

This is why every country in the world is investing in accelerating this change. The USA, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are competing with EU to be the first to develop a fully-functioning 5G network and reap the potential benefits for the economy.

“Public and private actors are reluctant to invest large sums in a technology where the business model that will transform those investments into profits remains nebulous”

The European Union’s connectivity goals for 2025 - including 5G coverage in all urban areas - is set out in its Communication on Connectivity for a Competitive Digital Single Market - Towards a European Gigabit Society. It foresees a budget estimated at €500 billion.

However, the introduction of 5G is a more complicated issue than a simple international race of investments and deployment. There are doubts over the safety of the new wireless connections, which are slowing down the deployment of the new 5G infrastructure.

This is why work on 5G infrastructure in the city of Brussels has stopped. Moreover, public and private actors are reluctant to invest large sums in a technology where the business model that will transform those investments into profits remains nebulous.

These are urgent issues that have to be addressed at European level. This is why I recently forwarded a written question to the European Commission on the assessment of the impact of 5G in real world conditions.

A study recently presented to the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy noted that the impact of 5G technology and radiation in real world conditions is still to be properly assessed; indeed, it is not yet possible to do this accurately.

In addition, some 200 scientists recently launched an appeal, which stated that: “5G technology will significantly increase exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF), in addition to the 2G, 3G, 4G and WiFi telecommunications technologies already in operation”.

This is why I asked the European Commission to state whether the opinions drawn up by the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) on this subject had assessed the impact of 5G on human health, and particularly children’s health, in real world conditions and situations, rather than simply in lab conditions.

“The introduction of the fifth generation of mobile connection, 5G, now promises to overcome the current limitations of existing mobile devices”

Furthermore, I asked it to indicate what assessments have been conducted to pinpoint the strategic sectors where this technology could provide the best applications and those most useful to the European economy.

Large-scale investments need strong certainties. Although lower frequencies, many in the UHF range, are being proposed for the first phase of 5G networks, much higher radio frequencies are also projected in bands that are traditionally used for radar and microwave links.

Moreover, a radio signal’s effective range reduces in proportion to the square of the frequency. This has major implications for the capital cost of the cellular radio network. Although many of the 5G networks currently being piloted will use the much lower bands, those proposed upper frequencies for the future may only offer propagation ranges in order perhaps as low as tens of metres.

Higher frequency signals are also subject to more weather interference - rain, snow, fog – as well as obstacles such as wet foliage or buildings. This means that, at higher frequencies, indoor use may be problematic if based on through-wall or window penetration.

With higher frequencies and shortened ranges, base stations will be more closely packed into a given area to avoid “not-spots”. Ranges of 20-150 metres may be typical, giving smaller coverage areas per “small cell”.

A cell radius of 20 metres would imply about 800 base stations per square kilometre. This dense network rollout will be costly, not just in terms of installations but also in the costs and delays in obtaining planning permission and authorisation.

Therefore, for urban coverage with 5G small cells, it makes sense for member states to simplify and harmonise their authorisation permits and planning permission processes.

We have to address these issues and the significant questions emerging over the possible impact on health and safety arising from potentially higher exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation arising from 5G.

About the author

Patrizia Toia (IT, S&D) is vice chair of the Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee

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