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Leaping into a 5G world but not everyone is on board yet

AS telecommunications companies and governments look to the business benefits of the 5G world, public and scientific opinion remains divided over whether the new technology is a necessary leap forward or whether it could prove to be a health hazard.

The new technology has come to facilitate a world where smart devices are moving well beyond mobile phones to encapsulate watches, TVs, fridges, self-driving cars – the list is endless – and opens the floodgates wider to an internet of things (IoT), augmented and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.

During Cyprus’ first hologram call using 5G technology on July 5 by the island’s largest telecommunications organisation Cyta, chief executive officer Andreas Neocleous highlighted “the revolutionary capabilities of 5G”, which he said will impact public safety, health, entrepreneurship, our cities, education, tourism and entertainment.

On the flip side, in a public talk in Larnaca some days later, electrical and mechanical engineer and former Green Party member Andreas Makrides called the move into 5G “a human experiment” for the sake of profit, as the danger he assigns to 5G frequencies can only be rationalised by the fact that mobile operators are expected to make an annual revenue of €225bn by 2025.

The Ericsson mobility report last month forecast that by the end of 2024, 5G subscriptions will reach 1.9bn, 35 per cent of traffic will be carried by 5G networks, and up to 65 per cent of the global population could be covered by the technology. This makes it the fastest generation to be rolled out on a global scale.

For local governments, beyond the revenue expected from the taxation of telecom companies, a full rollout of 5G technology requires that the companies first purchase 5G spectrums from the state through an auction process. Last month, Germany’s spectrum auction raised €6.55bn, an almost identical amount to Italy’s 2018 spectrum auction.

Despite a wave of appeals and petitions from influential scientific bodies from around the world over the potentially serious health effects of 5G radiation, the technology has already been installed for commercial use in various parts of the world as the US scrambles to catch up with Asia in the race, and Europe has its eyes set on the bronze medal.

The EU’s 5G action plan drawn up in 2016 laid out the objective of starting the launch of 5G services in a selected city in each member state by the end of 2020 at the latest, followed by a rapid build-up to ensure uninterrupted 5G coverage in urban areas and along main transport paths by 2025.

In line with the EU vision and the island’s national broadband plan, local telecom companies Cyta, Epic, and Primetel were in April given licensing to run pilot 5G programs pending the official spectrum auction set to begin at the end of 2019 and to wrap up in the first quarter of 2020.

In Cyprus, the selected city is Limassol. Limassol is also one of the five European cities involved in the ‘5Genesis’ project, which aims to test out the bloc’s readiness to implement 5G technology EU-wide, and which is part of the EU’s Horizon 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever with nearly €80bn of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020).

Very soon, Limassol will be a testing ground for the terrestrial and satellite workings of 5G.

Antennas emitting 5G have already been installed along the Limassol coastline and within the Nicosia town centre as part of Cyta’s pilot phase, the organisation’s chief technology and informatics officer Chrysis Phoiniotis told the Sunday Mail.

Asked whether Cyta was aware of the emerging heightened concern among the public regarding the potential adverse health effects of 5G technology, and whether in view of this, the residents of areas where the technology is being installed are being informed beforehand, Phoiniotis said: “Cyta is committed to the most stringent international standards of communication and security, fully implementing the relevant principles and guidelines of the state and competent agencies.”

He added that “the state has set limits on wireless communications and the Cyta network is well below them.”

Cyprus, along with dozens of the other countries within and beyond the EU follow the international guidelines set by the international commission on non-ionising radiation protection (Icnirp), which set the safety limit at 300 GHz. This is the maximum of the 5GmmWave spectrum which has a range of 30 GHz to 300 GHz.

While Icnirp is currently revising its radiofrequency guidelines, it issued a draft advice document on high-frequency radiation (100 kHz to 300 GHz), essentially reiterating its long-standing position that “HF [high frequency] exposure below the thermal threshold is unlikely to be associated with adverse health effects.”

The European Commission gave a similar response to the appeal filed by 240 scientists from more than 40 countries in 2017, calling for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G in view of the serious potential health effects that can arise from the substantial increase in exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) that is expected with the new wireless technology.

“There is consistent evidence presented by national and international bodies (Icnirp, Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks) that exposure to electromagnetic fields does not represent a health risk, if it remains below the limits,” as set by Icnirp, the EC said.

It assured that “the strict and safe exposure limits for electromagnetic fields recommended at EU level apply for all frequency bands currently envisaged for 5G.”

Many ascribe to this position, citing the relatively safe forms of radiation we are exposed to on a daily basis, such as that emitted by the sun, visible light, and our electronic devices. They highlight the importance of the distinction between ionising and non-ionising radiation, whereby the former is able to damage DNA resulting in tumours and cancer, while the latter, under which 5G frequencies fall, can only penetrate body tissue to a certain limited depth, causing localised heating at worst.

So, if everything about this headlong rush to stay afloat in the fiercely competitive global economy is being done by the book, why are hundreds of scientists, independent bodies, and concerned members of the public from around the world sounding the alarm? Does it mean there’s something wrong with the book itself?

Some say yes. According to Investigate Europe, the de-facto standard-setter of radiation safety limits in much of Europe, Icnirp, is “a closed-door club” that does not allow membership to scientists with dissenting views, while also allegedly setting safety limits largely to accommodate the interests of the telecom industry.

For this reason, scientists are trying to persuade the standard-setters that the maximum radiation threshold does not accommodate for pregnant women, unborn children, young children, teens, men of reproductive age, the elderly, disabled and chronically ill, neither for animals beyond the human species nor for the natural environment.

For humans, as per the results of a growing body of research, “effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans,” say the 240 scientists who signed the 5G appeal.

Closer to home, an online petition seeking to stop 5G in Cyprus had by Thursday gathered almost 6,000 signatures, while paper copies of the petition are also in circulation. It calls the Cyprus government to end development of 5G “until the potential risks to human health and the environment have been fully explored by industry-independent scientists.”

In November 2017, the Nicosia Declaration on electromagnetic fields and radio frequencies was signed by the Cyprus medical association, the Vienna Austrian medical chamber and the Cyprus national committee on environment and children’s health, who say that scientific evidence on the harmful effects of RF-EMF is “growing like an iceberg,” and call for further research focusing on children, “which have delicate systems that direct the development of human life.”

Makrides also referred to a new field of study called bioelectromagnetism, which has found that at 60 Ghz, iron which helps hemoglobulin work properly is demagnetised, making it difficult for oxygen to be sufficiently distributed in the body.

Though we have a conception of Cyprus being 10 years behind the rest of the world, Makrides says 5G will hit the island forcefully due to Cyta being a part of Vodafone, the seventh biggest company in the world.

While one side remains adamant on the unlikeliness of adverse health effects in view of existing studies, and the other cites existing research to sound the alarm, both sides recognise the need for more research. But one side believes this can wait until the new technology is officially rolled out, while others demand to be assured that the public will be safe before the launching of the new technological era.

In view of a sense of steadfastness on behalf of the EU and telecom companies who are retaining the rollout of 5G in full swing despite appeals and concern, lawyers, scientists, and others are coming together around the world to launch court cases against local authorities in an attempt to suspend the installation of the technology until it is proven safe.

Dissenting doctors and scientists are begging to be proved wrong because if they’re not, the ubiquity of the 5G technology will leave nowhere for people to hide. “We are not technology-deniers, we have based our life’s work on technology, all we ask is that they don’t go so fast,” Makrides said.

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