According to a Deloitte study, there are conflicting opinions on the new 5G technology. Further study is therefore needed, and the debate held at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) addressed civil society organisations' concerns surrounding the issue.
Is 5G dangerous for our health and environment or is it safe? A Deloitte study carried out in 2020 in 12 European countries says that 39% of participants believe that 5G is safe for health, while 21% think it is harmful and 40% are unsure. The debate hosted by the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN) on 20 July 2021 looked at the benefits and drawbacks of 5G technology, especially in terms of its impact on society and the environment, and taking into consideration European citizens' concerns.
In recent years, civil society organisations in the EU and other countries have warned about potential negative effects and crises that might be triggered by the unbalanced relationship between the rights and interests of individuals, on the one hand, and those of corporations and public institutions, on the other, said Baiba Miltoviča, president of the TEN section.
5G networks are already up and running
The number of live 5G networks has increased significantly, both in and outside Europe since the beginning of 2019. By the end of September 2020, 5G commercial services had been rolled out in 18 (EU-27 plus the UK) countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
The European Commission has already addressed the issue of 5G network cybersecurity, but has focused less on its impact on society and the environment. While opinions in the scientific community diverge, it is generally agreed that 5G warrants further study and exploration: there is no doubt that the new frequencies mean new impacts and forms of interaction with the human body.
Together with the emerging technologies it facilitates, 5G brings uncertainty, scientific risk and effects that are still invisible and have not been properly evaluated. We need suitable anticipatory governance, applying the precautionary principle to the European legislative. It is time for the electronic communications industry to be sustainable and responsible, just like other business sectors, said Dumitru Fornea, rapporteur for the EESC opinion currently being produced on The societal and ecological impact of the 5G ecosystem.
On the same wavelength was Laurenţiu Plosceanu, president of the study group on the EESC opinion, who stressed:
With the rapid development of these new technologies, the general public and organised civil society in developed countries have highlighted the need to speed up the development of internet infrastructure. However, there is still no general consensus on how these technological systems will affect the environment, living organisms or people's civil rights.
Potential risks versus benefits
A comprehensive debate with a wide range of stakeholders was therefore needed in order to identify proposals to improve the legislative framework and to consider the need to create new safety standards based on cumulative exposure.
Eric van Rongen, from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) maintained that the only evidence of potentially harmful effects came from temperature elevation above thresholds and nerve stimulation, but there was no evidence that radio frequency electromagnetic radiation caused diseases such as cancer.
Speaking for the opposite side were Mădălina Apostol, representing the Romanian STOP 5G Coalition and Maurizio Martucci, on behalf of the European STOP 5G Alliance.
Ms Apostol called for an urgent halt to the roll-out of 5G, stressing that it would massively increase exposure to radio frequency radiation, which has proven harmful for human health and the environment. People are the rightful owners of 5G resources such as frequencies, buildings and data, and they should be the ones who decide on its implementation, based on free and fully informed consent, in the form of "social licencing" at community level, following public disclosure of radiation emission data and the risks involved.
In a video message, Mr Martucci said that one of the biggest problems was compartmentalisation, i.e. focusing the debate just on certain dangers of 5G and thereby missing the big picture of epoch-making changes already under way in the Smart City and Gigabit Society projects. He called for Europe to immediately adopt an international moratorium on the 5G roll-out in order to prevent European citizens from becoming guinea pigs of this technology.
Lise Fuhr from Europe's telecommunication network operators' association (ETNO) advocated policy support for private network investment and telecom service innovation, as major enablers of the whole digital strategy: reports show that secure 5G and fibre networks will play a major role both in increasing socio-economic growth and in making progress on sustainability.
Lastly, Peter Stuckmann from the European Commission's DG CNCT pointed out that we were living in the digital decade and that during the pandemic, digital technologies made it possible for business and our private lives to keep going. The digital sector was therefore critical for economic recovery and would shape climate neutral, circular and resilient economy in the future.
All contributions will now feed into the EESC opinion, which is due to be adopted at the October plenary session.
5G is not a new technology per se, but is an extension of existing technologies (from 1G to 4G) based on radio access networks (RAN) and will exist alongside them. There will be a mixed network of networks: a greater number of more varied radio frequency bands, a range of devices that exchange data and a plethora of interactions with users.
5G technology should allow for wireless hyperconnectivity, making it possible to connect a huge number of devices at a much faster transfer speed. The new capabilities are needed for self-driving cars, virtual reality, augmented reality and the "tactile internet". 5G technology will also speed up the transition to Industry 4.0 and facilitate the development of applications based on artificial intelligence.