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Op-Ed: 5G is fast, safe and crucial technology

Australia is getting a new generation of mobile phone technology.

We got analogue mobile services in the eighties, digital in the nineties and the third generation (3G) in the noughties. Much of Australia now has fourth generation mobile (4G). But now Telstra and Optus have started rolling out fifth generation (5G) mobile - and Vodafone is not far behind. 5G will be even faster than 4G. But it can also connect many more handsets and other devices to a base station.

And 5G has much lower latency the time it takes for the signal to travel to the base station and back. That will be important for some big changes coming - like driverless cars.

A sensor on the driverless car will detect a car in front; the data will be sent over the 5G network; the central computer will issue a command to brake; the signal will come back and the car will brake; and it will all happen in a matter of milliseconds.

Every advanced economy is introducing 5G - and Australia needs to keep up. It will be a critical technology for our economy to advance.

Understandably, many Australians want to know if 5G will bring any changes to the way that our telecommunications networks emit electromagnetic energy (or EME)and whether that raises any health concerns.

There are a lot of myths on the internet about EME. You might read that 5G will cause cancer or kill bees but it is not true. These myths are causing some Australians to worry. I get a fair number of letters and emails about the safety of 5G.

Australians can be confident that we have rigorous safety standards which set tight limits on how much EME can be emitted from telecommunications networks and devices.

Our safety standards in Australia are based on the recommendations of the global scientific community.

The International Commission on Non Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) recommends these standards - based on decades of careful research. In Australia, responsibility for these safety standards sits with the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

It carefully assesses the global research, including from ICNIRP, and works with experts to set these standards and to give advice that Australians can trust.

ARPANSA sits in the health portfolio - not the communications portfolio so it can give objective advice.

ARPANSA's advice to government is that 5G is safe; the weight of evidence shows that regulated levels of EME from telecommunications devices do not pose a health risk.

When 5G equipment is tested - both base stations and also handsets - it often shows EME levels which are below the safety limit by a factor of one hundred or even one thousand.

I have seen this testing with my own eyes. When three devices were tested - a microwave oven, baby monitor and a 5G-enabled phone - the baby monitor produced the highest EME emissions. Importantly, the EME emissions from all three devices were a very, very long way below the ARPANSA-set limit.

Some people say to me that while 3G and 4G mobile networks are safe, they worry that 5G networks will operate at higher frequencies - so called "millimetre waves". That is true. But plenty of other devices have operated at these frequencies for many years.

Importantly, the same rigorous EME emissions standards apply when the 5G networks use these higher frequencies as when they use lower frequencies.

The Morrison Government understands that Australians want to be assured that 5G is not harmful to their health. That is why we are announcing additional government funding for ARPANSA so that it can undertake continuing research on emerging technology such as 5G.

Soon we will start a communications campaign about the safety of EME to ensure Australians have reliable, scientifically accurate information.

Australians need to know that 5G is an important technology - and a safe one. This additional funding will help give Australians the knowledge they need on this important issue.

Paul Fletcher is Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts

Originally published in the West Australian, 18 December 2019.