5G: A threat to weather forecasting?
Technical specifications surrounding 5G technology conflicts with radio frequencies used in critical applications. How is the race for technological supremacy affecting human lives?
Radio waves are wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light, ranging between 300 gigahertz (GHz) to as low as 30 Hertz (Hz). Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation with frequencies between 300 megahertz (MHz) and 300 GHz. Most natural objects emit such waves; water, in its gaseous form, emits microwave radiation. Human use of these frequencies is strictly regulated by international law through global agencies.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the agency of the UN responsible for the application of information and communication technologies, including radio and microwaves. As one of the oldest intergovernmental organisations, the ITU counts as its members all UN states, except the Republic of Palau and the Vatican. The ITU regulates the use of the radio-frequency spectrum, as well as geostationary and non-geostationary satellite orbits through an international treaty called Radio Regulations. The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) is organised by the ITU to review and revise the Radio Regulation treaty in the 9kHz to 275 GHz spectrum. The next conference is scheduled for late-2019. The upcoming WRC at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt is the first such meeting outside the ITU’s Geneva headquarters.
5G is the fifth-generation of mobile internet connectivity, promising faster data download and upload speeds, more comprehensive coverage and more stable connections. It does this by operating on the lower end of the radio spectrum. Studies by 3GPP, a standards organisation for the mobile industry, to identify suitable bands for 5G, listed the 700 MHz, 3.5 GHz and 26/28 GHz frequencies as ideal for deployment.
With the proliferation of 5G technology, governments have begun disseminating and regulating related blocks of radio frequencies. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the regulatory body presiding over American radio frequencies, recently auctioned two such blocks. One was between 24.25 and 24.45 GHz and the other between 24.75 and 25.25 GHz. The US’ position as a large communications market entails that its regulations will influence global decisions on the technology.
However, a recent study shows that FCC’s auctions have failed to account for the ubiquitous nature of radio waves. Water vapour emits a faint signal at 23.8 GHz. Some weather satellites, such as the European MetOp, monitors energy radiating from the Earth at this frequency to ascertain humidity in the atmosphere. This data is then used to model how weather systems, including storms, will develop in the future. As evidenced by FCC’s auction blocks, a 5G transmitter would operate at nearly the same frequency. Data analysts would be unable to discern between the natural waves emitted by water vapour and those produced by 5G stations. As a result, forecasts would become less accurate as misrepresentative data is incorporated. A 2010 report found that losing scientific access to the 23.8 GHz signal would disqualify at least 30% of all useful data in microwave frequencies.
While water vapour and 5G waves are not at the exact same frequency, radio-frequency engineers have warned of noise, measured in units of decimal watts, that would distort any data collected. Typically, regulators have set controls that limit the noise permitted. The FCC auction set a noise limit of -20 decibel watts; negative numbers indicate stringent controls. The European Commission has agreed on a -42 decibel watts noise limit, while the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) recommends -55 decibel watts. The US regulation permits over 150 times more noise that Europe, and 3000 times more than the WMO.
America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA have lobbied the FCC to work with them to protect frequencies used for Earth observations from 5G-based interference. Reports suggest that NOAA and NASA have completed a study on the effects of noise interference. However, despite a formal request from Congress, the report has yet to be made public. NOAA is under the purview of the Department of Commerce, which has said that it “strongly supports the administration’s policy to promote US leadership in secure 5G networks, while at the same time sustaining and improving critical government and scientific missions.”
American 5G regulations, as seen earlier, has a ripple effect on the rest of the world. Likewise, the lack of atmospheric data from the US can hurt meteorological forecasts for Europe, whose models are often determined by weather conditions over America 3-4 days prior.
Experts in both the meteorological and communication sectors hope that the upcoming WRC in Egypt will help shore up concerns. The 5G industry believes that American regulations will significantly impact the implementation of worldwide standards, while radio-frequency satellite experts hope to adopt strict global noise standards.
Although a licensed spectrum enables more comprehensive coverage areas and better quality of service, operators could use unlicensed bands to augment user experience by aggregating licensed and unlicensed bands. Access to wider bands will lead to increased spectrum utilisation and could create new deployment scenarios, including the ability to ensure that the 23.8 MHz frequency is undisturbed.
Our assessment is that crucial global platforms used to safeguard human lives are being compromised in a race to secure technological primacy. We believe that the FCC has not paid enough attention to seemingly unrelated sectors when auctioning America’s 5G spectrum. The Trump administration appears to be singularly focused on the global race for communication preeminence rather than on concerns that may practically impact the global community. We feel that the ITU has effectively managed the regulation of the radio spectrum, and the next WRC conference provides an excellent opportunity to adopt its administration to a new wave of technologies. However, we estimate that competing interests may mean that a common framework cannot be agreed upon, especially given America’s recent moves away from multilateralism.
Although India has yet to auction its 5G spectrum, reports suggest that the frequencies set aside for 5G services are not close to the 23.8 GHz range. Current reports hold that the auction will include frequencies above 30 GHz.
Image Courtesy - NOAA Photo Library [Public domain]