What is 5G and how does it work? KSAT Explains

Over 700 5G locations exist in the city of San Antonio

In this KSAT Explains, we breakdown what 5G means, what regulations are in place for the devices to be installed and what doctors are saying about the potential health risks associated with the technology.

You see them popping up on nearly every corner, small white boxes atop utility poles.

Those boxes are providing 5G data to a number of devices like cellphones and cars.

But what is 5G? In this KSAT Explains we breakdown what 5G means, what regulations are in place for the devices to be installed and what doctors are saying about the potential health risks associated with the technology.

What is 5G?

“I’ll say what it isn’t; It’s not Wi-Fi.” Chris Walding, who is the principal engineer at CNF Technologies in San Antonio. Walding says 5G stands for “fifth generation.” 5G is not a technology, it is a performance level set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is an agency of the United Nations.

The ITU sets the technical standards needed to keep the entire world communicating and connecting. They essentially define the level of performance needed to make sure everyone around the world is able to use all their ever-advancing devices seamlessly.

“One of the requirements of 5G is to have a million devices supported within a square kilometer area,” Walding said. In today’s day and age, a million devices can seem like a lot, but nearly everyone has a phone (or two), some cars require data connectivity, smartwatches, tablets...the list goes on. It is up to companies to put the technology to handle all of those devices in place.

The Evolution

As technological devices continue to evolve, wireless companies have to keep up with the data needs.

It all started with the giant brick phones of the 80′s. During that time, all the user could do was make a call. That was first generation. Then came call and text. That was 2G. A few years later, 3G rolled out with the first Iphone. It was the first time mobile phones had access to the internet. This is where things really started to take off. A goal of 5G was to increase the capacity of 4G. With more people using mobile devices, we simply need more power. 5G is the answer right now.

“What 5G specifies now that 4G didn’t do is what they call millimeter waves, which are up in the tens of gigahertz, you know, from 28 gigahertz up to 50 gigahertz,” Walding said.

Millimeter waves help increase speed because they support a wider bandwidth, which allows those waves to send more data. The problem with these smaller waves is that they don’t propagate well. By that, we mean the waves have a hard time penetrating surfaces like walls and buildings. Elevators and parking garages are good examples of barriers. You may notice you have “full bars” outside of these structures, but the instant you step inside, you lose services.

To fix that issue, companies are installing more connectivity points. These areas are known as cells. Think of a cell as the area around an antenna your device is connecting to. With 5G, cells are smaller and closer together, meaning they can transmit further and stronger, in turn, having more power to penetrate walls and surfaces.

“...So you can overcome some of the propagation delays and inefficiencies. Instead of broadcasting like you see on cell towers, maybe in 120 degrees. Now you can narrow that beam and focus all that energy so you can...go further,” Walding explained.

Think of it like narrowing a flashlight.

“You can focus it where you have a really bright wide beam. Right. But you can’t see as far. But you can take that and narrow that beam. Now you’re taking all that light energy. You can see farther, but you can’t see the angle,” he said. The ability to focus those waves gives the advantage of precision.

The Concerns

With higher frequencies and more nodes surrounding us, there are concerns about how the technology could impact human health. One mother out of Cibolo shared her concerns with KSAT. On May 6, Kinjatta Dobins was in the parent pickup line when she noticed the newly-installed 5G pole near the sidewalk.

Years ago, Dobbins was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Today she is worried about radiation from a 5G antenna.

There are warnings on most 5G poles that read: Notice - RF (remote frequency) energy emitted by this device may exceed the FCC’s general public exposure limits. Stay at least three feet away from the device.

“You’re going to be exposed to radiation. And I get that. But there’s some radiation that, according to the FCC, that’s safe. And then there’s some that is concerning, like a 5G pole,” Dobbins said.

Dobbins said no warning was given by the city of Cibolo or the wireless provider. KSAT found there are very few regulations for the placement and construction of 5G towers in Texas. In San Antonio, consistent with federal guidelines, the city’s right-of-way management division cannot restrict the installation of wireless tower poles in public rights of way more than 50 feet wide.

Paul Berry, a spokesperson for the Public Works department for the City of San Antonio says, “We don’t allow proprietary polls, four or five nodes to be placed on streets that are less than 50 feet wide. So that pretty much keeps them out of residential areas.”

However, there are regulations that companies have to follow.

“There’s an application that they have to make. They have to have proof of insurance. And then they have to make sure that they’re only putting it in on infrastructure within the city’s right of way,” Berry said.

There are also several permits that need to be approved for various things like fiber connectivity, running power to the device and digging the hole for the pole.

The City of Cibolo was successful in having utility companies remove two towers that were not in compliance with the city’s guidelines.

Screenshot of a map showing current locations of 5G towers in San Antonio. (Provided by the City of San Antonio) (ksat12)

The City of San Antonio tells us it has, so far, never removed any nodes. There are 795 5G locations clustered in the downtown area and north and northwest sides.

The map is likely to become much more crowded.

“You will see more and more 5G nodes over the next few years because that is going to become the standard,” Berry said.

Some people, like Dobbins, are challenging the standard.

“I think it’s just important for AT&T or Verizon, whatever carrier communicate with the community about the risk or you know, or the non-risk. Give us an opportunity to know what their science is,” she said.

The Research

Is there a consistent, proven reason for concern? The short answer to date is no. The long answer is that there are problems with the studies done so far.

Dr. Vijayalaxmi, a scientist at the Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio, says “They were not conducted properly, properly in the sense adequate controls were used.”

Dr. Mark Bonnen is chairman of the department of radiation oncology in the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio and chief medical officer of the Mays Cancer Center. He says “A little over half of those studies showed an effect. The other number of studies didn’t. But again, each of those studies you can look at and say, ‘Well, I knew it showed an effect, but, you know, they didn’t quite control for temperature. They didn’t really control for the type of animal that was being used or, you know, some other challenge with the study itself that makes it unreproducible.’ So when it’s not reproducible in science, we generally tend not to trust it.”

The studies looked at whether radiation from 5G technology could cause genetic damage. Dr. Bonnen says, “Just raising the temperature of living tissue can damage the DNA. So, if you aren’t controlling properly for that effect, then you might find a false positive result.” Dr. Vijay says because of those problems “they will not be able to conclude either way, whether 5G induces genetic damage or not.”

Dr. Vijay’s latest publication highlights the need for more stringent, better-controlled experiments. You can read her latest publications below:

What We Know Right Now

The issue at this point in time is that research takes time. Right now, what we do know is that we are exposed to radiation every day of our lives.

“Every day as we walk through our environment, we’re being bombarded by electromagnetic radiation, whether it’s a radio station broadcasting, which is pretty low energy, or a 5G that’s broadcasting, which is a bit higher energy, or the sun itself, which we know is very high energy,” Dr. Bonnen said.

The difference is in the distance, right? The sun is much further than a 5G tower. True, but Dr. Bonnen says “The sun is much more powerful than any [human-made] source of radiation.”

So, it’s not the higher frequencies of 5G that raise questions. It is the transmission rate: all of those 5G nodes radiating energy in a much smaller space and closer together.

Dr. Bonnen says “If there is some 5G DNA damage, it’s probably very small in our bodies or normally repairing it in the way that they should.”

A publication from the national institutes of health in 2019 showed “biological responses” in some frequencies, but concluded that there was “contradictory information” and “too few studies.” In 2020, the World Health Organization noted “no adverse health effect” but again “only a few studies.”

If you’re concerned, Dr. Bonnen recommends using “...speakerphone or use Bluetooth, which is connecting through a different type of radio wave in place. The device, itself, that’s the 5G device. A little bit further from you, even a foot or so can make a dramatic difference.”

Dr. Vijay says “The bottom line is there is and there is no proof either way that the 5G technology is safe or not.”

“We may very well have a very different perspective on it in five years,” adds Dr. Bonnen.

More KSAT Explains Episodes:


About the Authors:

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Dylan Collins is the producer for KSAT Explains. Before joining KSAT, Dylan was a news producer at WAFB in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has also worked on multiple productions led by the Discovery Channel.