FAQ: Answers for the most important questions

Mobile communications and 5G in general

5G is a key technology for the digital transformation. The 5G mobile communications standard opens up new opportunities and possibilities – particularly in the industrial production sector, but also in mobility, agriculture, healthcare, energy provision and many other spheres of life. 5G is a further development of previous mobile communications standards. The essential difference between the various “generations” of mobile communications (2G, 3G, 4G, 5G) is their respective data transmission speed.

The key characteristics of the 5G standard are transmission times (latencies) of under a millisecond and data rates of up to 10 gigabits per second. This represents at least a tenfold improvement on 4G, thus considerably broadening the spectrum of application. As a result, other, significantly higher frequency ranges are needed in addition to those already used. Only these higher ranges can provide the large bandwidths required.

Concrete examples of applications for 5G in the municipal sector that demonstrate the particular benefits of 5G for citizens can be found in the 5G Innovation Programme of the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI):

  1. 1In the field of mobility, within the framework of the selected projects, municipalities are improving efficiency and reliability in the local public transport sector, creating an open test environment for 5G-based applications in the autonomous driving sector and studying applications for 5G mobile communications in the maritime transport sector.
  2. 2In the field of agriculture, the funding projects selected are examining matters such as targeted control and dosing of plant protection agents and the use of fertiliser, the use of drones for pest infestation monitoring, and forest monitoring for purposes including early fire detection.
  3. 3In the healthcare sector, one of the areas under examination is how 5G telemedicine applications can be used in the fields of integrated healthcare and home care.

There are also numerous other application areas for 5G, such as energy provision, waste disposal, marketing of urban areas, and tourism.

Basically, the first “true” 5G applications will be in the industrial sector, in the field of production automation, which is why 5G is initially developing its strengths as a “machine network”. Classic mobile applications like making phone calls and surfing the Internet are already possible, reliably and efficiently, with 3G and especially 4G. The LTE network (4G) forms the basis for the flexible expansion and upgrading of mobile networks to 5G. For “normal” users wanting to make phone calls and surf, the quality of LTE will still be sufficient. So initially, for regular users of voice and data services, comprehensive LTE coverage is much more important.

We need both. We need future-proof and extensive mobile communications coverage to ensure that every region, every household and every company has an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of digitalisation – not just in the major conurbations, but especially in rural areas too. Mobile network operators and the Federal Government have therefore agreed that by the end of 2020 at the latest, 99 percent of all households nationwide will be supplied with the 4G network. By the end of 2024 coverage across all networks will extend to 99.7 percent of all households and 95 percent of the total surface area of the country. Likewise, in its mobile communications strategy of November 2019 the Federal Government agreed measures for further improving network coverage in Germany. Among other things, a funding programme will deliver financial support for the development of up to 5,000 mobile communications sites that could not foreseeably be provided for without state intervention. Thanks to these supplementary measures in the mobile communications strategy, we will achieve coverage of at least 99.95 percent of households and 97.5 percent of the surface area of Germany.

Anyone who wants to use 5G will indeed need new 5G-capable end devices in the future. Current standard mobile applications like using a mobile for phone calls or surfing the Internet will still be possible with the 4G network, so 4G-capable devices can continue to be used for these purposes.

With standard consumer products such as smartphones or tablets, there will be no significant difference between today’s 4G devices and the 5G devices available in the foreseeable future. These devices will be able to switch back and forth automatically between 4G and 5G usage.

In the case of older models that can only use the 3G network, things are a bit different. At present, the 3G network is no longer being upgraded, and network operators are planning to gradually scale back their 3G networks. Therefore, to benefit from the best possible network coverage, 4G-capable end devices should be used and consumers should make sure that their contract with their service provider actually does include access to the 4G network.

The expansion of the mobile networks

The expansion of 4G and the development of 5G will be carried out in close consultation with the respective municipalities, who will be kept informed whenever the network operator in question is erecting a radio installation. With new installations, the municipality also has the right to make their views heard and for there to be discussion on the matter, and the operator must take the results of this contribution into account. Network operators are also expected to keep the local citizens informed and seek a constructive dialogue.

The initial expansion of the 5G mobile telecommunications standard is focused on densely populated as well as commercial and industrial areas, with transport routes a further target for an early upgrade. One prerequisite for this 5G expansion is the construction of new 5G base stations connected to the glass fibre network. By making it as easy as possible to use existing infrastructures – empty conduits, for example – and ensuring access to existing infrastructures inside buildings, the expansion can be effectively supported and made easier. The BMVI has created a brochure on this topic. This identifies the potential for the shared use of municipal carrier infrastructures and defines the requirements for making them ready.

It is important for new mobile communications sites to be compatible with the network structure of mobile companies, ensuring the overall network structure is sensible. Therefore, it is hardly productive for municipalities to designate specific areas for the erection of cell towers without coordinating and agreeing these with the operators. Whenever choosing a new site, network operators always ask municipalities for their opinions. The mobile companies must give the results of this contribution consideration.

There are four mobile companies handling the expansion of 5G in Germany: Deutsche Telekom AG, Telefónica Deutschland Holding AG, Vodafone GmbH and 1&1 Drillisch AG. A full list of German mobile communications sites requiring site certification can be viewed on the pages of the Federal Network Agency:

The individual mobile operators also provide information about the development and expansion of 5G on their own company websites.

For example, [Deutsche Telekom AG] already has 5G base stations operating in Berlin, Bonn, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Cologne, Leipzig and Munich.

Telefónica Deutschland Holding AG already announced its intention to expand its 5G network in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne and Frankfurt am Main for the first quarter of 2020.

Vodafone Deutschland GmbH is currently operating 60 5G base stations in 40 cities, towns and municipalities.

And 1&1 Drillisch AG plans to commence its own 5G network expansion in 2021.

“Small cells” is the term used for stationary mobile transmission installations with a low transmitting power and a small coverage area. Use of small cells is especially common in locations where demand and user density are particularly high, the aim being to complement or consolidate the coverage provided by 4G and 5G mobile radio cells. Typically, such cells are used in city/town centres, airports, railway stations, event centres, business centres, sports stadiums and trains, and along transport routes.

Electromagnetic fields

The limits applicable in Germany are defined in the Ordinance on Electromagnetic Fields (the 26th Ordinance Implementing the Federal Immission Control Act). They apply to stationary transmission installations above a specific transmitting power.

Mobile transmission installations above a specific transmitting power require a site certificate issued by the Federal Network Agency. Or in technical terms, all radio installations with a radiated power of 10 watts (EIRP) or more require a site certificate. EIRP stands for equivalent isotropically radiated power and is used for measuring effective radiated power. The site certificate shows mandatory safety distances. The party operating the radio installation must ensure that no unauthorised persons access the area. Transmission installations with a lower transmitting power (small cells in particular) do not need a site certificate, but they must still be declared to the Federal Network Agency if they are operated within a public telecommunications network (this includes the standard mobile networks).

For installations that may only be operated with a site certificate, the limits cannot be exceeded provided the safety distances are complied with. All of the above provisions apply to 5G in the same way as they do previous mobile networks.

For installations that may only be operated with a site certificate, the limits must be complied with anywhere outside the safety distances defined for the transmitting antennas. The Federal Network Agency makes sure of this by checking, before issuing the site certificate, whether the safety distances it has defined are within the area that the operator is in a position to monitor. The operator is responsible for compliance with the safety distances.

For installations of this kind, the Federal Network Agency can carry out on-site checks to make sure the values defined in the site certificate are being complied with. The effectiveness of the site certification procedure is documented by means of measurement series carried out on a regular basis.

Even if someone does live directly within the radiation direction of a transmission mast, exposure is generally below the applicable limit value by a very considerable margin. The limits also protect particularly sensitive sections of the population, such as sick people and children. An overview of all transmission installations subject to the requirement for site certification, and of the safety distances applicable in each instance, can be found in the public database of the Federal Network Agency.

The majority of small cells do not need a site certificate; it should be possible to ensure the safety distances required for reasons of preventive health protection, which in the case of a single transmission installation may be approximately 30 cm, by mounting them in a relatively high location (significantly out of reach of human beings, around the height of a street lamp) or in a casing (for example within an advertising column). The mobile operators have, in the most recent update of their voluntary commitment entered into with the Federal Government, assured the Federal Government that they will ensure safety and health protection when building small cells to the same extent as that already established for the erection of transmission installations within the existing mobile network. The voluntary commitment also includes an agreement with the mobile operators that the procedures for informing and involving municipalities, as established and proven since 2001, will continue to be applied when upgrading small-cell technology. 

5G end devices are subject to the same legal requirements as previous mobile terminals. Under the Radio Equipment Act (FuAG), the top priority is the requirement to protect the health and safety of people, pets and livestock. Only if devices fulfil the legal requirement that “no [...] radiation capable of giving rise to any risks may be generated” may they be made available on the market, put into operation and used.

In principle, there is no significant difference between 4G and 5G as regards the type of signals used for transmitting information.

As regards electromagnetic fields, the greatest effect of the new 5G technology is that with “intelligent antennas” using the technique known as beamforming, better data transmission rates and higher ranges become possible between an end device and the relevant stationary transmission installation. Thanks to the directionality of these antennas, the safety distances may potentially be greater than with 4G antennas. Use of beamforming technology may also result in very short data packages. There may be an overall improvement in the efficiency of frequency usage and the energy efficiency of the transmission technology, since the electromagnetic fields are mainly directed towards the actual location where they are needed for data transmission.

The limits in Germany are based on the full range of national and international scientific studies. These values are also used in the vast majority of countries, with just a few diverging from them. In many cases, the level of such divergent limits is not determined on a scientific basis. In any event, extreme caution is to be exercised about making a straightforward comparison between limits, since the actual potential exposure of the population is influenced not just by the numerical value, but also, to a significant degree, factors including calculation and verification procedures, consideration of prior exposure caused by other facilities and the local scope of application. On behalf of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, an international comparison of legal provisions in respect of electromagnetic fields was compiled.

Health evaluation

There is no fundamental difference between electromagnetic fields generated by previous mobile networks and those generated by 5G transmission installations. Based on current scientific knowledge, these electromagnetic fields do not pose any health risks in their own right, i.e. independently of the technology used, provided the limits are complied with. It has been scientifically proven that when the body absorbs electromagnetic fields, this leads to an increase in tissue temperature (known as a thermal effect). Limits ensure that this temperature increase remains so low that no health effects occur. The new development worth noting is that in addition to the frequencies already used for a variety of radio applications, higher frequencies may also be used in the future. The higher the frequency is, the less deep the penetration is. This will concentrate the thermal effect on the surface of the body.

There are plenty of scientific articles on the effects of electromagnetic fields in the frequency range used by mobile communications, many including experimental investigations or epidemiological studies. The available scientific findings on the effects of electromagnetic fields on human beings are also significant in respect of the frequencies currently available for 5G. Within the applicable limits, and provided the requirements imposed on mobile phones are complied with, there is at present no evidence that mobile communications have any effect on health. All that can be stated is that viewed overall, the available studies have not produced any proof of a risk to health. Such an evaluation can be considered reliable if a large number of scientific studies have not demonstrated any effects and the majority of the experts involved in the evaluation are also in agreement. It is, however, scientifically impossible in principle for the technology assessment to include clear evidence that there is no health effect on human beings.

The higher frequencies that will in the future be made available for 5G to use are also subject to limits offering protection against health risks on the basis of present scientific knowledge. In contrast to the ranges previously used for mobile communications, the limits in the higher frequency range are admittedly based on fewer studies. With higher frequencies, absorption happens very close to the surface of the body, reaching only surface tissue. There is no reason to expect any direct effect upon internal organs. To date, there has been little research into any indirect impact on the whole body that might be transmitted via the skin. To ensure the continuing validity of the applicable limits, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection will be conducting further research into the distribution of the population’s exposure to the frequency bands that have been researched less (26 gigahertz and higher), along with any accompanying biological and health effects. The first such research projects have already been launched. The Federal Government’s mobile communications strategy also envisages the establishment of ongoing research funding in order to further intensify accompanying research on the effects on people and the environment.

It is true that exposure to electromagnetic fields from base stations rises when additional base stations are constructed, within existing networks and new ones. However, exposure caused by the fields generated by end devices may decrease if the average distance between the user and a base station is reduced as a result of the expected densification of the network as the 4G networks are expanded and the 5G networks are developed. Exposure also depends on the maximum and actual transmitting power in each case, and this is expected to be of a similar magnitude to that associated with 4G.

A further change is emerging with the increasing use of small cells with a smaller range. These are operated closer to places where people live. Because of the envisaged use of higher frequencies, electromagnetic fields in frequency ranges that had previously been used mainly by motor vehicle radar devices or airport security scanners are also becoming relevant. These higher frequencies do not penetrate the body as deeply as the fields used previously for mobile communications. As such, they only reach the tissue close to the surface of the body.

The Federal Office for Radiation Protection supports the development and expansion of the 5G networks with research projects on field distribution. Moreover, the Federal Government’s mobile communications strategy envisages the development of ongoing surveillance of electromagnetic fields (EMF monitoring) to ensure that the population’s exposure is constantly recorded along with complex exposure scenarios.

Mobile phone users are fully protected by the applicable limits for end devices and transmission masts. Despite this, a few users wish to reduce their personal exposure. Recommended measures include following the manufacturer’s instructions concerning the electromagnetic fields given off by the device, using a headset while making phone calls and not making phone calls in locations where reception or transmission is poor. In addition, when purchasing a new end device, users can look for the lowest possible SAR value (specific absorption rate).

There are people who attribute health complaints – some serious and measurable – to a specific transmission mast or to mobile communications in general. There is no scientific proof that the radiation generated by mobile communications can trigger such problems. Medical advice should therefore be sought concerning other possible causes and environmental factors. Complaints such as headaches or sleep disorders may have any number of triggers. A few individual cities/towns even have special environmental departments for dealing with this.

It has also been demonstrated many times that an individual’s own expectations can be a major trigger for measurable bodily changes, including sleep disorders or headaches. In this respect, it no longer matters whether there is an operating field nearby or not. Sometimes it is enough for the affected party to believe they are within an electromagnetic field (the so-called nocebo effect).

More and more devices communicate with each other wirelessly, and 5G will see the arrival of many new types of device using mobile communications to talk to each other.

The Federal Office for Radiation Protection is following developments in this field attentively. The new networked devices we might encounter in our everyday lives generally tend to have a considerably lower range than, say, mobile phones, let alone base stations.

So far, there have been no indications that the plethora of new devices including sources of electromagnetic fields are exposing individuals to significantly more radiation or that they are exceeding the relevant limits. It is true that radiation from the Wi-Fi-capable fridge, the networked Bluetooth speaker and the cordless telephone at home all adds up. But even taken all together, the result is still well below the limit values.