The 5G Threat Isn’t What You Think

Every new iteration of cellular technology seems to be accompanied by two narratives. The first is the hype as network operators promise a new and incredible bounty from faster wireless connections. The second centers around health concerns raised by exposures to electromagnetic radiation.

The same cycle is replaying with 5G. There’s been hype a plenty and the related, likely unfounded, fears about exposure to all those electromagnetic waves supposedly breeding tumors in all our brains. Plus, climate change.

Yet 5G appears to have introduced something genuinely novel into the otherwise conventional progression of cellular networking narratives. 5G, at least in the United States, appears to pose a major threat to our ability to collect weather data used in forecasting.

At issue is the FCC’s auctioning off spectrum in the 24GHz band of radio frequencies. What’s so special about 24GHz? It sits uncomfortably close to the 23.8GHz frequency band—the same band used by weather forecasters to detect water vapor. Those water vapor signals have been used to great effect in weather forecasting. The fear, as voiced by agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Navy, is that with voice, text, streaming media and gigabits worth of Internet of Things data traversing the 24GHz spectrum, it will be almost impossible for weather devices to tease out the weaker water vapor signals from all that noise. For its part, the FCC has disputed NOAA’s assertions, claiming it misses key facts in how 5G equipment will operate.

The meteorological community has also sounded alarm bells about other frequencies, including the FCC’s proposed auction of the 37.6 to 38.6GHz spectrum band, which corresponds to the same frequency band used to detect rain and snow. The FCC may also place 50.4-51.4GH and 80-90GHz bands on the block, the same frequency used to measure atmospheric pressure and clouds and ice, respectively.

The acting head of NOAA claims that 5G interference could set back the accuracy of U.S. forecasts by 30 percent, setting back hurricane detection by two to three days and generally making our forecasts as accurate as they were in 1980. In an era of climate change, when storm severity is on the rise, willingly limiting access to more precise forecasting data could put citizens and businesses at risk.

There’s no quick technological fix either. Most of the weather sensing technology at issue is satellite-based. It could potentially take years to design, build and deploy equipment that can cut through the 5G interference and tease out the necessary weather data. There are, however, more immediate regulatory fixes. Since 5G relies on short waves, it requires a lot of power to work. That power creates a lot of noise. NOAA and others in the forecasting community have proposed lowering that noise so that existing technology can detect water vapor’s weaker signal, putting U.S. noise levels in line with the European Union and the World Meteorological Organization.

The tug-of-war between forecasters and telecom firms may come to a head very soon. At the end of the month, the World Radiocommunication Conference will convene in Egypt and stakeholders hope that the FCC will have hammered out a workable compromise with the meteorological community by then. Otherwise, those weather apps that load so quickly over ultra-modern 5G networks may be saddled with less-than-ideal weather data.