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The 5G network brings about a lot of the things that go to make up smart cities.

Last month I wrote about 5G for the NZ Herald’s project Auckland report. You can read the original story here: Project Auckland: How 5G will transform the city – NZ Herald.

The first part includes an interview with Matt Hitti, who looks after strategy and architecture for Vodafone. He thinks the impact will be profound.

The key is that 5G will trigger a massive change in the way organisations work with remote sensors. 5G has much greater capacity. This means it can push more data through the air while also pushing it faster. Extra capacity also means many more devices can connect to the network at the same time.

Connecting sensors to wireless networks isn’t new. Connecting many more sensors and sensors capable of much greater throughput is. Hitti says some of those sensors will be high definition video cameras.

I’ve been writing about 5G for five years now. When you get behind the obvious hype and marketing, one thing is clear: 5G is not really about mobile phones and consumers. Its focus is machine to machine connections.

The consumer aspect is largely a smoke screen. You may want 5G on your phone, but you don’t need it.

Business, on the other hand, does need 5G, not just for internet of things applications, but for tasks like remote control of cranes and building reconfigurable factories. Spark demonstrates this with its Americas Cup projects. Hitti talks of 5G applications where computing power is pushed out to the edge of networks so incoming data can be processes and given a response in real time.

This is the true 5G story and frankly it’s a lot more interesting and exciting than any consumer application. Most of the important stuff will happen out of sight in the background. And yes, it will transform the city.

Can you get cancer or other illnesses from cellphones? What about Wi-Fi networks? Are there 5G health risks?

The answer is a definitive no. There are no ifs and buts. Wireless communications pose no health risks.

How can we so certain there is no problem?

The first answer is that wireless networks have been widespread for 30 years now. Over that time many scientists have researched the subject. They have found a heating effect from high power wireless equipment. But that’s not used for communications. We’ll come back to this later.

4G cell tower

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theorists suggest scientists and governments suppress bad results. They don’t. As you will see if you read on, we can be sure of this.

This brings us to the second reason why we know wireless is safe. There are no queues of patients showing up at hospitals with cellphone cancer. The technology has had 30 years to do its worst and still there are no signs of an epidemic.

It’s not hard to understand why there are conspiracy theories. Governments and industries have lied to people in the past.

Its’s also not hard to understand why radiation seems frightening. There are harmful versions of radiation. That’s why dentists and their assistants wear lead lined overalls to take X-rays.

Ionising and non-ionising

This is because X-Rays are ionising radiation.

In plain English ionising means radiation knocks molecules about. In living cells ionising radiation can trigger cancer.

Wireless signals are non-ionising radiation. Which means it doesn’t knock molecules about. There is no cancer effect.

Both types of radiation are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Everyday wireless communications only uses non-ionising parts of the spectrum.

Non-ionising wireless radiation does generate heat. You can see this everyday with microwave ovens. They cook food. A microwave over could cook you if you climbed inside.

You need a lot of power to heat anything with electromagnetic energy. A lot more energy than you need to send and receive wireless signals. Microwave overs use hundreds of watts. If you stand at the bottom of a cellular tower the energy will be much less than a single watt.

The networks in place today operate at levels that are about one percent of the power needed to warm a human body.

Cooking with wireless

We learnt the hard way about electromagnetic heating. In the 1940s, high power equipment cooked people working on the UK’s radar defence. Since then we’ve learned how to shield radio waves. Your home microwave over includes a shield.

There are people who blame cellular electromagnetic fields for health problems.

One complaint is that electromagnetic radiation causes people to feel tired or confused. You also hear about headaches. Laboratory tests using placebos suggest these problems are not caused by radio waves.

Other causes can explain these symptoms. Hay fever has a similar effect and is often hard to track down. There are other possibilities.

As humans we often look for the most obvious answers for problems we don’t understand. If someone suggests a phone caused your ailment, it may sound plausible. Even if it is not. You might as well blame aliens.

5G is different, not that different

This brings us up to date at the dawn of the 5G era. Some anti–5G campaigners point out the technology is different to earlier cellular technologies. That’s true. 5G uses a wider range of frequencies. When and if cellular companies build denser tower networks, they will bath us more often in this wider range of frequencies.

Even so, the frequencies are still non-ionising radiation.

And although there will be more antennae, we will still be subject to low total levels of radiation. If if you are in range of a dozens of towers, there will not be enoough power for a measurable heating effect. There is no 5G health risk from heating.

Another comforting thought is that 5G uses higher frequency radiation. One of the characteristics of higher frequencies is that they penetrate less distance. They will only get a millimetre or two into your body.

In other words, 5G radiation is not going to kill you. It won’t even make you sick.

The risk is zero. Compare that with the risk of picking up your 5G phone while driving a car. That’s something you do need to worry about.

Can you trust them?

You might accept all this and still worry that governments and the industry are lying about 5G risks.

First, while we’ve never had to deal with the 5G spread of frequencies in the past, the science doesn’t change. It’s still non-ionising.

Second, communications industries are competitive. If a phone maker lied about their product, rivals wouldn’t hesitate to blow the whistle.

Likewise, if a 5G service provider bent the truth, rivals in competing technologies like fibre broadband wouldn’t hold back. This isn’t happening.

5G health rumours

The hardest aspect of this for some readers is that it feels like all radiation is dangerous. It may also feel like we are being lied to. Even with plenty of convincing evidence some people still think 5G feels wrong. Some of this is manipulation. There are people playing with your mind on matters like this.

You might ask yourself why people spread these rumours (paywall). It’s a huge problem and not only for 5G. Similar misinformation stops people from vaccinating children. In part, spreading these stories makes some people feel powerful and important.

There’s another angle, dark forces want to break any trust you might have in authorities. They want to turn you away from fact-based reasoning. This paves the way for their power plays. This aspect is well beyond the scope of this story.

At this point go back to what you can see with your own eyes. There are no busy hospital phone radiation departments. You don’t know anyone phone radiation has harmed or killed. Nor do your doctors or anyone else.

In short, you can stop worrying about 5G radiation. There are plenty of other things you should worry about more than 5G health risks.

America pressure failed to halt Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment company, from taking part in the UK’s 5G network. While the move has implications for New Zealand, little is likely to change here in the short term.

The British government said it would not ban Huawei hardware despite more than a year of heavy lobbying from the Trump administration. Much of the case against the company rests on claims it has close ties to China’s Communist Party and poses a security threat.

Britain’s move is significant because the nation is seen as one of the US’s closest allies. It is also a member of the “five eyes” group of countries, which also includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The five nations have a intelligence sharing agreement.

Huawei has found itself at the centre of a geopolitical power play. The US has threatened to curtail intelligence sharing with countries that allow Huawei equipment into strategic networks. Meanwhile China has hinted at economic retaliation against nations that reject Huawei hardware.

Supplier diversity

One reason nations like the UK are willing to permit Huawei’s involvement in strategic networks is that it gives a diversity of of suppliers. Only a handful of companies are capable of building and installing advanced 5G mobile networks.

Huawei was not mentioned by name when the British government announced its decision. Instead it talked in terms of “high-risk vendors” that pose greater security and resilience risks.

The decision is something of a compromise. Huawei, and any other ‘high risk vendors’ will only be able to supply certain parts of the network infrastructure. This might include antennas and base stations.

High-risk vendors are limited to a 35 percent share of any network.

“Disappointed”

The official word from America is that the US government is“disappointed” by the decision. It reiterated its claims about Huawei being mistrusted.

Huawei has repeated denied that it is controlled by the Chinese government. To date no-one has found any credible evidence of the company or any national government using Huawei hardware for intelligence gathering.

Huawei is the world’s largest telecommunication equipment supplier. It has grown rapidly in the last decade to the point where it dominates development in the mobile sector. Huawei was also the driving force behind getting 5G standards accepted.

Officially the UK decision has no influence on Huawei’s role in New Zealand mobile networks. Yet Britain’s acceptance of the company is likely to alter perceptions in many markets including here. It also gives Huawei ammunition in its New Zealand campaign.

There are arguments for and against Huawei, but it’s hard to get away from the negative case being at least as much about geopolitics as security.

At BusinessDesk Paul McBeth writes: “Andrew Bowater, deputy chief executive of Huawei New Zealand, said the UK decision was encouraging and showed it was time for New Zealand’s government to engage with his company and its customers on how to find a way forward.”

Another angle that will be of interest here is the realisation that a Huawei ban could have cost the UK billions. Without Huawei, there is significantly less competitive pressure on equipment makers, which means higher prices.

 

In March, New Zealand’s government will auction 16 10MHz blocks of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band.

It’s an unusual spectrum auction. Most past spectrum auctions in New Zealand have been for 20-year licences. This time, the licences are for two years.

The reason for this is that the industry is pressuring government to release the spectrum they need for 5G mobile services.

Treaty claims

At the same time, the government has yet to reach a Treaty of Waitangi settlement with iwi over spectrum. Selling short-term licences buys time to complete negotiations.

Each of the 16 10MHz blocks has a reserve price of $250,000. Bidders need to deposit $500,000 to take part in the auction.

If everything sells at the reserve price, the government will raise $4 million. Prices can go higher. The last time spectrum was auctioned prices went much higher.

No single bidder will be able to buy more than four blocks in the first auction round. This is less than the 80MHz to 100MHz recommended for full 5G services by the GSMA, an international mobile operator trade association.

The rights are not tradable, are nationwide and buyers must use them for 5G mobile services.

More spectrum later

Licence terms start later this year and finish at the end of October 2022. The government will hold a further, long-term auction for the spectrum that year. The government says it expects to free up more spectrum later.

Bidders in the March auction will have to return existing 3.5GHz management rights to the government.

This affects Vodafone more than any other carrier. It is possible Vodafone’s existing 3.5MHz holding will fall. Returning existing spectrum will help flatten the playing field. There will be a refund for returned management rights.

Radio Spectrum Management, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, will use a simplified version’s of a combinatorial clock auction. In effect, this starts with the seller offering blocks at the reserve price. If the demand for blocks is greater than the supply, it increases the price.

Beyond the three mobile carriers

New Zealand has three existing mobile networks. There are 16 spectrum blocks on sale and each bidder can buy four in the first auction round. That means the government expects a fourth buyer to enter the auction.

This is a departure. The earlier auction for 700 MHz band spectrum was tailored to cater for the three mobile carriers; Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

The obvious candidate is Dense Air. The company owns 70 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum. At the moment Dense Air acts as a wholesaler to the mobile carriers. Spark’s tiny South Island fixed wireless broadband 5G project uses Dense Air spectrum.

Other parties may be interested in the spectrum. Few of New Zealand’s Wisps1 could afford the $500,000 deposit or the $250,000 per block asking price. Yet if they were to act collectively a bit might be possible.

If the government doesn’t sell all 16 lots in the first auction round, it may offer them to existing bidders.

Given that the amount of spectrum being auctioned is not enough for carriers to offer a full blown 5G service, it looks as if will be some time before New Zealand gets all the benefits of the technology. There’s enough bandwidth for fast data speeds, but, as things stand, maybe not enough for carriers to deliver the gigabit plus speeds 5G hype has promised.


  1. Wisps are small, local wireless internet service providers. They cover rural and remote gaps in markets not served or poorly served by bigger telcos. ↩︎

America is leaning hard on Britain to reject Huawei as a 5G network builder. Meanwhile all the parties in New Zealand have gone quiet on the subject.

US officials told British ministers using Huawei in UK 5G networks puts intelligence sharing at risk. According to a report in the Guardian, the Americans said it would be “Nothing short of madness”.

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull also warned the UK prime minister on the matter.

He says: “The real question is not looking for a smoking gun but asking whether this is a loaded gun and whether you want to have that risk.”

Threat seen in Australia

The threat identified by Australian security agencies was not Chinese intelligence interception but potential denial of network access.

Turnbull told The South China Morning Post: “Australia banned Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network as a hedge against adverse contingencies in case relations with China soured in the future.”

Elsewhere in a video he says:

“Capability takes a long time to put in place. Intent can change in a heartbeat, so, you have got to hedge and take into account the risk that intent can change in the years ahead.”

Malcolm Turnbull – Former Australian Prime Minister

Turnbull says Australia reached this decision without pressure from the US. That may be true, but it stretches credibility to suggest there was no lobbying. Even more so when you read the stories about US officials warning British ministers.

New Zealand may have also arrived at its own conclusions, but again, there will have been lobbying on both sides. And, at the very least, our politicians will be aware of The Australian decision.

Huawei locked out

For now, Huawei remains locked out of building a 5G network in New Zealand.

That was never going to affect Vodafone who built the first serious 5G network here. Nokia has been Vodafone’s long-term partner and has most of the 5G contracts.

It’s different for Spark and 2degrees. While 2degrees has announced nothing about its 5G plans, Spark has made a lot of noise over the last two years.

Until now, Huawei has been Spark’s main partner. The two built one of the world’s first 4.5G networks. For a long time it looked as if Huawei was on track to build Spark’s 5G network.

TICSA

That now seems remote. On paper the door is still open. The two companies could still get the necessary sign-off under the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013. This is betterknown as TICSA.

The GCSB blocked Spark’s original 2018 5G upgrade proposal under the Act. At the time it said the proposal posed a “significant network security risk.”

Ministers have been careful to avoid talking of an outright ban. They say the GCSB judges each TICSA application on its merits. Officially it just happens that the proposed application wasn’t up to the standard.

Spark and Huawei could return with a fresh proposal. At times it sounds as if the government expected this to happen. Yet the first application was more than a year ago and there has been no word of a fresh attempt.

Otherwise New Zealand’s government has said little more about the affair in public. It doesn’t need to.

White House claims Huawei spies

Other governments are making plenty of noise. The US and the White House has maintained all along that Huawei spies for the Chinese government. Huawei has been adamant that it does not.

As Turnbull makes clear, Australia remains cautious.

In Huawei’s defence there is no evidence of any wrong doing. Nor is there a Chinese law in place that obliges Huawei to act on the government’s behalf. Nor is China seen as a likely aggressor. As far as diplomats, exporters and importers are concerned we are all the best of friends.

Yet, as Turnbull makes clear, there doesn’t need to be evidence of spying for there to be a potential future risk. Nor does there need to be a change in Chinese law. If tensions between the West and China ramp up, China could put Huawei under pressure.

As Turnbull points out, circumstances can change fast. Building a network, or an alternative network takes a lot of time and money. His point is not choosing Huawei is prudent.

Decision time in London

It’s not clear yet which way the UK will jump. It could still decide to go ahead with Huawei. Huawei’s prices are cheaper than rival network hardware companies.1 Huawei hardware is often the better choice for reasons other than money.

The problem the UK faces is much the same as the one facing New Zealand. Allow Huawei and there will be a diplomatic fall-out with the US. Shut Huawei out and China will take offence. There’s no fence sitting, nations are being forced to choose one or the other.

China has not helped matters. Since the question first arose, it has flexed its muscle in ways that alarm overseas observers. Hong Kong is the most obvious example.

One way or another New Zealand appears to have made a decision. Spark is pushing ahead with alternatives to Huawei with its 5G projects.

It will be interesting to see if New Zealand’s position changes if the UK give Huawei the green light. It may not. Yet a decision in Huawei’s favour will give the company ammunition in future New Zealand discussions.

A story unfolding on the other side of the world could yet have implications here.


  1. Some argue the Chinese government subsidises the business. If true, that is more, not less, reason to be wary. ↩︎