Many consumers believe they don’t have enough information about 5G to judge whether it’s safe. An information campaign could help explain the science and promote the benefits of advanced cellular technology.
As the fifth generation of wireless network technology (5G) becomes more widespread, some consumers have sounded alarm bells about its supposed health hazards. The most common concern is that 5G causes cancer, while a new conspiracy theory posits that 5G-emitted radiation weakens the immune system, enabling COVID-19 to spread.
Although scientific research has not shown a clear link between mobile phone technologies and adverse health impacts, adults in many advanced economies equate 5G with possible harm to their health, according to Deloitte Global’s latest Technology, Media, & Telecommunications (TMT) Predictions report. In fact, a May 2020 Deloitte poll found that at least 20% of respondents in six of 14 countries surveyed agreed with the statement, “I believe there are health risks associated with 5G.”
These findings suggest that consumers need more information about 5G—and the telecom and tech industries would be wise to make an effort to clear up any misconceptions. To convince consumers of the safety of 5G, organizations can provide information explaining cellular technology and tout the benefits associated with modern advances in mobile communication.
How Does 5G Work?
Understanding 5G requires an elementary knowledge of how mobile networks work. All generations of mobile technology, including 5G, are built on a nationwide grid of cell sites featuring transmitters that generate radio waves, which are received by a mobile device’s antenna.
The radio waves created by mobile networks—as well as TV and radio stations—fall on the very low-energy end of the broad spectrum of radiation. In contrast, radiation at the opposite end of the spectrum—such as X-rays, gamma rays, and some types of ultraviolet light—has much higher levels of energy, enough to damage DNA by removing electrons from atoms and potentially cause cancer.
The fact that cell phones emit radiation—albeit at very low energy levels—has led to longstanding concern about a potential relationship between mobile phones and brain or skin cancer. However, researchers have not established a connection. A 2019 study of mobile phone use and brain tumors in Australia, for example, found no increase in the incidence of brain tumors since the 1980s. As for skin cancer, a 2018 review of six medical studies undertaken between 1995 and 2017 found that “the effects of mobile phone radiation on skin diseases are weak and have no statistical significance.”
In some ways, 5G is likely to have even lower potential health impacts than earlier generations of mobile telephony. That’s because 5G has been designed to use less power than previous generations to reduce operational costs, and, as a result, it emits less power as well. This is accomplished via the new, advanced radio and core architecture used in the 5G standard, with 5G networks assisting 5G devices in minimizing power transmit levels.
Recent tests of 5G sites by regulators, such as Ofcom in the U.K., have found that their electromagnetic field (EMF) levels are well within international health guidelines. The highest EMF level recorded among 22 locations Ofcom tested was 1.5% of the acceptable level—in other words, 98.5% below the acceptable level. Most of the sites tested supported four generations of mobile technology, that is, a combination of 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G. At all these sites, 5G contributed the least to the EMF levels measured.
Beyond concerns about cancer and radiation, the pandemic brought a new concern about 5G and health: the fictional association between the rollout of 5G and the spread of the virus. Put plainly, the idea that 5G transmits COVID-19 is as bogus as it is impossible. The novel coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets exhaled by other people—not radio waves. A variant of 5G misinformation related to COVID-19 is that 5G emits radiation that weakens people’s immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness. This is similarly false.
What Makes 5G Better?
Deloitte’s research shows that understanding of 5G’s benefits is low in multiple markets, with up to two-thirds of adults stating they do not know enough about 5G in general as of mid-2020. Mobile operators, mobile handset providers, telecommunications regulators, government communications bodies, and science programs on broadcast and on-demand platforms can work together to share accessible yet comprehensive information explaining how 5G and other wireless technologies work. Individual companies and regulators can also team up to constrain the ability to share misinformation, particularly on social media platforms.
What would make an information campaign about 5G successful? Among other things, it would need to be both proactive and reactive. It would also need to be designed for all types of users, not just those with a science background. Organizations can debunk fake claims using similar channels and similar language while enlisting celebrity spokespeople to counter the spread of misinformation.
Information campaigns can do more than explain why 5G is safe, however. They can also educate people about its positive applications—for example, making everyday mobile features, such as browsing and maps, notably faster. Carriers can also talk about how 5G’s speed could make driving easier and safer because it enables vehicles to provide regular status updates, including video footage, to manufacturers, who can then identify flaws faster.
It’s clear that consumers need more information about the latest generation of mobile technology. By collaborating with an ecosystem of partners, the telecommunications industry can conduct a targeted information campaign that explains the science of 5G, fights misinformation, and—perhaps most important—helps consumers understand the benefits of the new technology.
—by Craig Wigginton, partner, Deloitte & Touche LLP; Cornelia Calugar-Pop, manager, Deloitte UK; Paul Lee, partner, Deloitte UK; and Kevin Westcott, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP