The 5G hitch

Faster connections could lead to inaccurate weather forecasts

Photo by Michael Kelly Cloud blanketed the sky in Marietta on Friday. Weather experts worldwide have warned that the high-frequency band of 5G cell phone networks being rolled out has the potential to interfere with weather forecasting because it can have the appearance of water vapor on satellite weather imaging systems.

The continuing hunger for more data, more sophisticated uses and more of just about everything else to feed the world’s cellphones has challenged technology to keep pace. The latest evolution in mobile connectivity is known as 5G, and it represents a leap forward in the amount of data that can be transmitted using a cell signal, which will make data-laden activities such as watching movies, gaming and listening to music on a phone quicker and simpler, with fewer interruptions.

There is, however, a hitch. The 5G technology makes use of a band of high radio frequencies, from 24GHz to 86 gHz. Those frequencies come very close to 23.5 gHz which, when perceived by a weather satellite, looks like a patch of water.

With that, weather experts and forecasters around the world are saying that use of that frequency could affect their ability to generate accurate short-term weather forecasts. Although the 5G high-frequency spectrum starts at 24 GHz, the transmissions are subject to “leaks” into the water-vapor frequency, so that cellphone transmissions have the potential to look like water vapor – cloud or fog – to the weather satellites.

This issue could cause the accuracy of the three-day weather forecast to revert back to the accuracy level in the 1980s, meteorologists say.

The issue came under discussion at the World Radiocommunication Conference in November. Telecom industry representatives pushed hard for access to 24 GHz, while representatives of the World Meteorological Organization and other weather-oriented groups pushed for severe restrictions on leakage standards. Delegates to the conference – there were 3,400 at the conference, which was held in Egypt – agreed to limit the strength of signals that spill out of 24.25 GHz, but the limitation was not strict enough to satisfy the weather group.

In an Oct. 28 article in The Verge, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine was cited as giving a warning to Congress in April: “If you can’t make that prediction accurately, then you end up not evacuating the right people and/or you evacuate people that don’t need to evacuate, which is a problem.”

The forecasts issued by weather services such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aren’t just used for planning picnics and ballgames. Aviation and maritime transportation networks depend on them for planning, road maintenance and safety crews count on forecasting for alerts and emergency services management offices consult them daily.

“We use the forecast a lot just to prepare for things like severe weather and flooding,” Washington County Emergency Services director Rich Hays said Friday afternoon. “We’re getting severe weather alerts right now, and although it’s mostly for northern Ohio, we get notifications so we can prepare for any water that’s coming our way.”

Implementation of 5G will be gradual and could take a decade for full coverage, although some localities are already rolled out. The next World Radiocommunication Conference probably will not take place for another three years.

In the meantime, the weather people will be gathering data on the issue. A query placed with the Charleston, W.Va., office of NOAA, which serves the Marietta area, was referred to the administration’s national media center.

“NOAA will perform additional analyses using the new standards agreed to at the World Radiocommunication Conference to identify any potential impacts on our observing systems. Additional time will be required for these studies. We look forward to working with our interagency partners and external stakeholders through this collaborative process,” an email from Chris Vaccaro, a senior media relations specialist with NOAA, stated.

There are trillions of dollars at stake for the industry, and the subject is sensitive.

Like its predecessors, 4G and LTE, the potential for 5G technology won’t become fully apparent until it is already in operation. Telecom companies are predicting much faster download times, reduction in “latency” – that momentary delay between initiating an operation on the phone and receiving a response from the network – and the ability to manage an exponentially larger number of devices and requests. The technology will also be essential for handling the operational needs of big industrial networks and moving the massive data interactions of autonomous vehicles.

AT&T, one of the primary telecom operators in the Marietta area, said it has already established 5G networks on the medium- and lower-frequency bands in 19 U.S. cities and on the high-frequency bands in 35 others. A 400-gigabyte transmission cable recently completed between Atlanta and Dallas, the company said, offers the potential for a connected customer to download high-definition video from all 70 episodes of “Games of Thrones” in about eight seconds.

The nearest place to Marietta that is partially wired for high-frequency 5G is Cleveland. AT&T expects to have national 5G coverage by the middle of this year.

To be able to use the features of the network, consumers will need to have mobile phones adapted to it, which for many will mean purchasing a new device, but not right away.

On a local level, some of Washington County is without access to any network. Recent Census data shows that about three out every 10 households in the county do not have access to broadband services, and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said Friday that, exciting as the possibilities of 5G might be, his priority is getting the basics to everyone.

“The advancement of 5G has the potential to revolutionize American competitiveness across virtually every sector of the economy, and the United States should lead the way on it. However, many rural communities, including many in Southeastern Ohio, need basic broadband infrastructure before they can benefit from 5G,” Johnson stated in an email. “That has to be the first priority. The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) recently announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is the next step in bridging the urban-rural digital divide. The RDOF will target millions of homes and small businesses that currently lack reliable, or any, high-speed broadband. We’ve got to get this right; people are depending on it. 5G is a great thing, but ensuring broadband access to those that don’t have it must take precedence.”

Michael Kelly can be reached at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.


• Stands for fifth generation, counting tech advances in telecommunications.

• Will use higher radio transmission frequencies to enable more data and speed in signals.

• Higher frequencies mean the signals decay over a shorter distance.

• Infrastructure will take the form of smaller, more densely placed radio transmitters.

• Expected to require several years to fully roll out.

Source: Times research.


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