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 AGTelefónica Deutschland Holding AGVodafone GmbH1&1 AG

“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.

The aim of the German Federal Government is to ensure future-proof and extensive mobile communications coverage, making sure every region, every household and every company has an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of digitalisation – not just in the major conurbations, but particularly in rural areas. Thus, in November 2019, the Federal Government agreed its mobile communications strategy. This sets out a diverse mix of measures for improving Germany’s mobile network coverage, including a mobile communications support programme that will see up to 5,000 under-supplied mobile communications sites opened up for at least 4G. And with the coverage requirements established when allocating 5G frequencies in 2019, the Federal Government provided an important impetus for the expansion of the 5G network in Germany.
An interactive map drawn up by the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) shows the information on mobile network coverage provided by the network operators.
It depicts the area coverage with the 2G, 3G and 4G mobile communications standards: www.breitband-monitor.de/mobilfunkmonitoring/karteThe locations of transmission installations are published in the BNetzA’s EMF database: [https://www.bundesnetzagentur.de/DE/Vportal/TK/Funktechnik/EMF/start.html]

No totally new mobile infrastructures are being built for 5G in Germany. In many locations, 5G technology can be retrofitted on to existing sites to produce, so to speak, multigenerational radio installation sites. New radio installation sites are needed if an area has had no coverage to date (black spots) and cannot be adequately supplied in other ways, i.e. by using existing infrastructures.

A mobile radio cell is generated by a base station. The optimum location for such a base station is determined by operators, not simply at random, but via a computerised procedure. This factors in regional circumstances such as the degree to which the area is built up and the level of vegetation. It also delivers a projection as regards the potential data traffic and volume of phone calls at the location, for instance.

Once a suitable site has been found, the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) gets involved, monitoring compliance with the regulations governing the telecommunications sector and conducting the site certification procedure. More detailed rules for the site certification procedure are contained in the Ordinance on the Verification Procedure for the Limitation of Electromagnetic Fields (BEMFV):

The site certification procedure is carried out for each location individually before start-up and concludes with the issuing of a site certificate. In order for the site certificate to be issued, the BNetzA determines the site-specific safety distance necessary for compliance with the limits. The BNetzA will issue a site certificate if the site-specific safety distance is within the so-called “controllable area”. This is the area within which the operator is able to determine the access or presence of individuals, or which people cannot access because of the actual conditions. The installation may only be operated if there are no people present within the site-specific safety distance. If these conditions are not met, the BNetzA will decline to issue the certificate and the proposed radio installation may not come on stream.

The mandatory safety distances for each authorised location are published in the BNetzA’s EMF database: www.bundesnetz- agentur.de/DE/Vportal/TK/Funktechnik/EMF/start.html

Since 2020, the step-by-step installation has been under way of intelligent electricity meters – also known as smart meters – at the premises of high-volume customers using between 6,000 and 100,000 kWh annually. The meters consist of an electronic measuring instrument that logs consumption accurately to the second, plus a system for transferring this data to the server of the respective supply company or metering point operator. Some systems use high-frequency electromagnetic fields for wireless data transmission. The latest findings suggest that these systems contribute very little to the exposure of humans to electromagnetic fields (EMF). It is therefore unlikely that they will have any impact on health.

The same is true of radio-linked smoke detectors. During standard operation they only transmit for a few hundredths of a second at most per hour, to test the radio link.

Radio-linked smart meters and smoke detectors may only be sold in Germany if they carry the CE symbol, which guarantees the protection of the health and safety of humans, pets and livestock. The Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) monitors the market to ensure this. Devices that do not carry the CE symbol must be removed from the market.

To cite the basic right to inviolability of the home in relation to mobile communications and penetration by electromagnetic radiation is a false application of the term. “Inviolability of the home” means that every person has the fundamental right in his or her own home to be free from state interventions. For example, a home may not be entered by the police or placed under surveillance without a court ruling.

This does not relate to penetration by immissions into a person’s private sphere, whether this takes the form of light or mobile radiation. It is a part of our everyday lives that our environment has an effect on us, such as noise or exhaust fumes or for that matter forms of radiation, e.g. light. Noise and light can penetrate our homes, and so too can mobile radiation. At a certain level, immissions may be harmful: noise can be too loud, light too bright, mobile radiation too intense. A range of immission limits are in place precisely to prevent this, including the limits governing electromagnetic fields from mobile base stations with a specific minimum transmitting power or greater. These limits have been set so as to be far below any potential “effect threshold” – that is to say, the point at which it becomes necessary to consider possible effects. Therefore, based on current scientific knowledge, such installations cannot result in any health risk to the population.

Research carried out as part of the German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme has shown that immissions from WLAN and Bluetooth devices within the typical home or office setting are well below the limits. In terms of product safety, standard WLAN routers are subject to regulations that ensure compliance with internationally recommended limits from a distance of just a few centimetres. These limits are derived from the threshold values for actual health effects, with reduction factors applied. Only if the limits are exceeded considerably do health effects become a possibility. The reduction factors ensure, among other things, that even groups that are potentially more sensitive, such as those who are old or pregnant, or infants and young children, are protected.

Just like other countries in Europe, Germany has opted to have its mobile networks operated by a variety of private companies. Because these companies are competing for mobile customers, they have to keep striving to make their offers appealing to their clientele, who might otherwise switch to other providers. To retain their customers and, if possible, acquire new ones, the network operators have to keep trying to develop and enhance their networks and offer attractive prices. The ones who benefit most from this are the citizens, because competitive pressure among these companies ensures technical innovation and higher network standards, all at the best possible conditions and prices for consumers.

At the same time, the Federal Government is obliged under constitutional law to ensure an adequate and appropriate mobile communications coverage. This is accomplished in particular by only granting mobile operators the use of the frequencies they need for development of their network on the condition that they commit to maintaining a specific quality standard in their network expansion (e.g. minimum requirements for bandwidths and network coverage relative to the number of households). However, mobile operators also cooperate with one another. For example, since 2001 they have voluntarily committed themselves to endeavouring, in consultation with the respective municipalities, to ensure the maximum possible shared use of sites. Between November 2019 and January 2021, the three mobile network operators entered into mutual cooperation agreements in the fields of black spot sharing, grey spot sharing and 3G refarming. These agreements will see them jointly using thousands of base stations over the coming years. A “black spot” is an area that lacks any mobile reception, and a “grey spot” is one in which only one mobile signal, from one operator, is available. “3G refarming” means converting former 3G transmission masts to LTE and 5G. By avoiding the need to build more base stations, these cooperations will create significant added value. There are however certain technical limits, particularly in areas where demand is high. In such areas, one network operator will frequently be using up all the capacity that a mast or rooftop site is capable of delivering to guarantee supply within its own network.

The 5G mobile telecommunications standard will be an important element in the gigabit networks of the future. The rising quality requirements on mobile communications in a fully networked society will be much more comprehensive than before, e.g. as regards availability, latency and higher data rates. As a result, to cover the requirements of the Gigabit Society, glass fibre networks and the expansion of 5G are essential.

One prerequisite for the expansion of 5G is the construction of new 5G base stations. To ensure top efficiency, these must be connected to the glass fibre network.

So every metre of glass fibre laid for a fixed-line connection also helps improve the mobile network by enabling new mobile communications sites to be constructed and existing ones connected at relatively low cost.

The Federal Government’s programme for promoting broadband is ensuring the densification of glass fibre infrastructures, especially in rural areas, thereby fulfilling one precondition for nationwide 5G availability in the future. Thanks to this, glass fibre provides adequate opportunities for the energy-efficient, scalable expansion of the capacity of mobile access networks.

Municipalities have an important part to play in the expansion of the mobile network. On the one hand, they themselves often have land or buildings that they are able to make available in the interest of a good supply. On the other, they are also the initial point of contact for the local population, whose interests they represent.

A mobile communication agreement has been in effect since 2001 between network operators and the leading municipal organisations who ensure that municipalities are entitled to a say as regards new mobile communications sites. This agreement creates a legal obligation on the part of the network operators to listen to the municipalities, to discuss the expansion with them and to take into account the outcome of such discussions.

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.

Those calling for a 5G moratorium would like to see the 5G mobile expansion suspended in order to establish the safety of 5G mobile communications via a wide-ranging technology impact assessment. In connection with mobile communications, the term “technology impact assessment” is often used to denote what is actually a risk assessment or threat analysis.

It is fundamentally impossible for research to satisfy demands for a guarantee of harmlessness. The total innocuousness of a substance, or the absence of an impact, cannot be scientifically demonstrated, since it will never be possible to test every potential situation, condition or combination. Rather, the Federal Government holds the view that the call for a 5G moratorium cannot be scientifically substantiated, since it ignores current extensive research findings on the health implications of mobile communications:

Potential health risks and biological effects and mechanisms of action relating to the high-frequency electromagnetic fields used in mobile communications have been investigated by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) as part of the German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme (DMF) and in subsequent studies. The findings of the DMF and other recent national and international studies have not provided any confirmation that high-frequency electromagnetic fields within the relevant limits have any adverse effects on health. The current research findings largely apply to 5G, insofar as it uses the same or neighbouring frequency bands as 3G, 4G or standard WLAN routers. There is therefore no fundamental difference between electromagnetic fields generated by previous mobile networks and those generated by 5G transmission installations within these frequency ranges.

Taking all available studies into account, and having due regard for their quality, it is the conclusion of the BfS that based on current knowledge and provided the existing limits are complied with, there is no scientifically confirmed evidence of any adverse health effects caused by mobile communications, including the 5G frequencies currently in the process of development.

Concerns are sometimes raised with respect to 5G applications in significantly higher frequency bands (> 20 GHz). Because of their lesser reach, it is expected that only very limited use will be made of these higher 5G frequency bands for mobile communications. The higher their frequency, the less deeply electromagnetic waves penetrate body tissue. In the frequency range above 20 GHz, penetration will be around 1 mm or less. The energy of such electromagnetic fields is absorbed into the surface of the body, i.e. the skin and eyes. It is true that in comparison to the mobile frequencies that have been used up to now, there has been considerably less research into health effects in the frequency range above 20 GHz. However, because of the low penetration depth, it is not possible for internal organs to be affected through direct energy absorption.

The precautionary principle is a key element of the risk management required in various policy areas. It stipulates that where scientific certainty is lacking as regards the extent and consequences of a risk to people and the environment – from a new technology, for example – measures for avoiding or reducing the impact must be taken. Overall, the data available on mobile communications is very robust. However – as is generally the case in research – in some areas, risk assessment still includes some scientific uncertainties. In mobile communications, this is especially true when looking at potential long-term effects of intensive mobile use, given that the user’s own mobile is by far the strongest source of this type of radiation. Here, the limits designed to protect against health risks are supplemented by measures that can in the broader sense be classed as precautionary. These include reducing exposure, providing the population with information and intensifying research.

By taking individual precautionary measures, citizens can reduce the effects of high-frequency electromagnetic fields. Since exposure is caused largely by end devices operated close to the body, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has, among other things, issued recommendations for the use of end devices such as mobiles and smartphones. A further guide for precautionary behaviour is the “Blauer Engel“” (“Blue Angel”) environmental label. This is awarded to end devices that generate a relatively low level of exposure in comparison to other products on the market with the same functions. Such devices can be termed “low-radiation”.

To learn more about precautionary measures relating to electromagnetic fields, please visit: www.bfs.de/DE/themen/emf/hff/schutz/vorsorge/vorsorge_node.html

To protect the population from health hazards arising from high-frequency electromagnetic fields, limits have been set. These are based on recommendations by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and the German Commission on Radiological Protection (SSK). They were developed with the aim of protecting people from scientifically proven health risks. These limits are defined in the Ordinance on Electromagnetic Fields, taking as their basis the Federal Immission Control Act (the 26th Ordinance Implementing the Federal Immission Control Act). The Ordinance applies to stationary installations – that is to say, transmission masts with an equivalent isotropically radiated power of at least 10 W generating electromagnetic fields in the 9 KHz to 300 GHz frequency range. It came into force in 1997 and was revised in 2013. Because the public mobile networks provide mobile phone services (GSM, UMTS, LTE and 5G) in various transmission frequency ranges, which are absorbed to varying degrees by the human body, the limits defined in the 26th Ordinance Implementing the Federal Immission Control Act are also frequency-specific.

The Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has compiled an overview of these limits: https://www.bfs.de/DE/themen/emf/hff/schutz/grenzwerte/grenzwerte.html

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, by factors including calculation and verification procedures, consideration of prior exposure caused by other facilities and the local scope of application.

In Germany, at locations accessible to the population, only a low percentage of the limits is generally reached. This is shown by measuring campaigns conducted by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) and by the EMF monitoring carried out by the responsible Federal Network Agency (BNetzA). Lowering the limits would not lead to an improvement in health protection, especially because as a rule base stations only account for a small share of individuals' total exposure to mobile telecommunication fields.

A few countries and cities have limits that are partly lower because they factor in other aspects as well as potential health effects in defining these limits. For example, in Switzerland, Ghent and Brussels, installation limits derived from considerations of technical feasibility and economic justifiability have been introduced alongside the immission limits. As a result, a correspondingly higher percentage of the limits is reached without the actual amount of immissions in these countries or cities being significantly (or even by an amount corresponding to the factor of difference) lower – because in the end, the technology behind them is the same.

The limit for mobile transmission installations is a maximum of 61 volts per metre. Compliance with the limits imposed in Germany for the protection of human beings is monitored by the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA). For installations that may only be operated with a site certificate from the BNetzA, it is impossible for the limits to be exceeded provided the safety distances are complied with. These safety distances are defined by the BNetzA using the Ordinance on the Verification Procedure for the Limitation of Electromagnetic Fields (BEMFV) as a basis. Safety distances are primarily determined on a mathematical basis, with factors such as frequency and the maximum power of the mobile transmission installation included in the calculation. The mandatory safety distances are published in the EMF database of the BNetzA: www.bundesnetzagentur.de/ DE/Vportal/TK/Funktechnik/EMF/start.html

Mobile end devices are not covered by the rules in the 26th Ordinance Implementing the Federal Immission Control Act. Protection for the health of mobile end device users is regulated as part of product safety by the Radio Equipment Act. To rule out any risk of health-relevant effects from the fields produced by mobiles, smartphones and similar products, the power and/or energy absorbed by the body when operating such devices should not exceed maximum defined limits. The measure used is the so-called specific absorption rate (SAR), indicated in watts per kilogram of body weight. According to the guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), the recommendations of the German Commission on Radiological Protection (SSK) and the European Commission, the SAR for the head and trunk should not exceed 2 watts per kilogram.

Since 2002, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has been regularly collecting from manufacturers the specific absorption rate (SAR values) of mobile phones available on the market.

The most recent results can be accessed online on the pages of the BfS: www.bfs.de/sar

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.

High-frequency electromagnetic fields are absorbed by biological systems such as the human body and cause heating, irrespective of the field strength. The physical basis for this thermal effect is well known and undisputed. However, there is also some discussion about so-called non-thermal effects caused by mobile communications that fall below the limits. Such effects have been studied in detail in many international studies, and also as part of the German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme (DMF). There has, for example, been investigation into whether there is any connection between electromagnetic fields generated by mobile transmissions and impacts on the immune or nervous system, the development of tinnitus, effects on the blood-brain barrier or even cancer.

It has so far not been possible to substantiate any of these assertions of non-thermal effects. The thermal effect therefore remains the sole proven effect caused by mobile communications falling below the limits, and the current limits protect us against temperature increases capable of affecting our health.

Further information on biological and health effects caused by high-frequency fields discussed in the scientific community can be found at: www.bfs.de/DE/themen/emf/hff/wirkung/hff-diskutiert/hff-diskutiert.html

The new 5G technology will predominantly use frequency ranges comparable to those previously used in mobile communications. Recent studies have found no indications of harmful effects attributable to mobile radiation, either in humans or in animals or plants. Here it should be noted that the limits are significantly higher than the actual exposure to which humans are subjected.
The legislature has defined the conditions under which there will be liability for damages.

According to the German Civil Code (BGB), “A person who, intentionally or negligently, unlawfully injures the life, body, health, freedom, property or other right of another person” is liable for damages. Operators of mobile communications installations must take such precautions as are necessary given the actual circumstances and can reasonably be expected of them, in order to avoid damage to third parties as far as possible. The limits set out in the 26th Ordinance Implementing the Federal Immission Control Act give more concrete form to this general legal duty to maintain safety. Provided the limits designated there are complied with, it can be assumed that the due diligence requirements imposed on the operator are met.

People are described as being “electrosensitive” if they attribute serious, measurable complaints – such as headaches, sleep disorders, fatigue, concentration disorders, tinnitus, dizziness or discomfort – to fields generated by mobile communications. The phenomenon of “electrosensitivity” is being investigated in a number of scientific studies, in contexts including the German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme (DMF). First and foremost, the aim is to look at the complaints objectively and shed light on the causal connections that those affected suspect between electromagnetic fields and the health impairments they suffer. From the countless studies conducted to date, it may be concluded that any causal connection between electromagnetic fields and the complaints experienced by electrosensitive people can be ruled out with a high degree of certainty. This is also the conclusion reached by the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, since the impairments suffered by the affected persons are for the most part genuine, their complaints should be taken seriously too. Those affected can, for example, turn to the mobile units known as “environmental ambulances” since it will be necessary to rule out other causes of the symptoms, these being individually quite diverse.

Addresses for counselling centres for environmental medicine and “environmental ambulances” can be found on the pages of the German Environment Agency: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de