The fifth generation of telecommunication systems will be a critical building block of our digital economy and society in the next decade. Mobile traffic doubles every two years and new applications are emerging. 5G will provide the capacities and performance to meet these connectivity needs.
These networks will be able to support millions of simultaneous connections in crowded places, real-time transmissions of high-quality video feeds and remote operations.
5G is about more than smartphones. It can connect our industries, from automated cars to wireless robots, offering opportunities for sustainable growth and jobs across Europe. The highest impact of 5G is expected in key sectors such as transport, health and manufacturing, with a benefit exceeding €500 billion worldwide per year for 5G-enabled service providers.
In technical terms, 5G networks are characterised by:
- low-latency: near real-time network responsiveness,
- wider bandwidth: for ultra-fast data sharing,
- guaranteed quality: having a part of the network reserved for a particular use.
These features make 5G the key foundation to test and launch the latest technologies, namely, the Internet of Thing (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual and Augmented reality (VR and AR).
Edge computing is a key concept to meet these requirements. It means data processing close to, or directly on, the user’s device, as opposed to sending data over the network to a data processing centre and then retrieving and sending it back to the user’s device. Such real-time interaction will enable applications like health and patient monitoring, remote control of factory machines, smart grids for renewable energy management, autonomous vehicles, precise fault detection and quick intervention, with many more possibilities.
The deployment of 5G networks depends closely upon access to radio spectrum, or the frequencies that are the basis of wireless communication, namely telecommunications. Initially, 5G will use similar frequencies as 4G to carry data.
In the future, 5G networks will also use frequencies positioned higher on the radio spectrum and operating on shorter wavelengths. This will allow 5G networks to serve even more users and devices simultaneously and deliver data extremely fast. The distance that these waves can reach is a lot shorter, so instead of cell towers that cover large areas, 5G networks will use less powerful and smaller antennas that cover smaller areas.
As the rate of connected devices and their applications increases, it is important to define the use of frequencies by different technologies (i.e. tv and radio broadcasting, public safety applications, hearing aids, medical equipment, telecommunications, etc.) Allocating spectrum for specific uses keeps different technologies from interfering with each other. It is also important to harmonise these spectrum rules across countries. Having the same rules across Member States ensures that technologies are interoperable across borders.
For the deployment of 5G, the Commission harmonised the use of three pioneer frequency bands (or frequency ranges) across the EU:
- The 700 MHz band, assigned to mobile operators for wireless broadband use. It will allow for wide territorial coverage, including rural areas
- The 3.6 GHz band, to support higher data-sharing capacity and moderate reach
- The 26 GHz band, for very high data-sharing capacity in dense areas, such as cities
The Member States should authorise operators to use these three bands for 5G by the end of 2020. This will ensure that operators have access to enough spectrum to provide innovative 5G services.
The Commission and Member States continue to exchange best practices and discuss common elements of these national spectrum awards. Information about progress and any major market developments are continually being reported by the EU 5G Observatory.
European operators are on equal track with China and the United States with commercial launches of 5G this year. With more than €1 billion invested in European trials, Europe is now a world leader in this field, developing unique business opportunities. Investments in commercial roll-out amounting to €60-100 billion per year are yet to come. Member States are encouraged to make the necessary frequencies available for sectors relying on wireless services like broadcasting, public safety, research, transport, environmental protection and energy.
The Commission launched the European 5G Observatory in 2018 to monitor the progress of 5G in Europe, including preparatory actions on trial activities, potential 5G-enabled cities, cross-border corridors and spectrum assignment.
There is a wide range of health applications of 5G, which include remote monitoring of health, at home care of patients, addressing the needs of patients in remote areas, and robotic surgery.
Telemedicine allows doctors and other clinical staff members to collaborate more efficiently to deliver healthcare from remote locations. It might be particularly useful in rural areas to be able to send real-time, quality videos and images to a specialist for review. Also, when one needs to deliver very large data files, like 3D medical images, the transmission can take a long time or not send successfully if the network is low on bandwidth. This means the patient waits longer for treatment and providers see fewer patients in the same amount of time. With high-speed and reliable 5G networks, patients can get treated sooner and have access to specialists otherwise not available, by improving both access and quality of care.
Reliable, real-time remote monitoring
By using IoT devices, healthcare providers can monitor patients and gather data for a more preventive and personalized care. Wearables, which are commonly used for remote monitoring, increase patient engagement with their own health, while decreasing hospital costs. However, remote monitoring technology usage is limited by the capacity of the network to handle the data. Slow network speeds and unreliable connections prevent doctors to get the real-time data they need to make quick decisions. 5G technology, with its low latency and high capacity, will allow for reliable remote monitoring of patients.
Many key healthcare decisions will be using artificial intelligence (AI), for example to determine potential diagnoses, or to decide on the best treatment plan for a specific patient. Additionally, AI can help to predict which patients are more likely to have post-operative complications, allowing healthcare systems to provide early interventions when necessary. The large amounts of data needed for rapid learning require ultra-reliable and high-bandwidth networks. Additionally, providers often need to access data from mobile devices. By moving to 5G networks, healthcare organizations can use AI tools to provide the best care possible – from wherever they are. By enabling all these technologies through 5G networks, healthcare systems can improve the quality of care and patient experience, as well as reduce the cost of care. Instead of only reacting to patients' condition, 5G networks can give providers the ability to deliver more preventive and personalized care.
Consumers can expect better mobile services, new IoT-enabled applications for better energy management, improved safety and engaging entertainment.
We can expect much faster and more reliable mobile internet, where greater network capacity will eliminate internet traffic congestion and make seamless connectivity a reality. With wider bandwidth and reliable connections, more people will have access to the internet, digital services and education.
5G will enable better energy management and lead to a more sustainable future. With more connected objects that are able to share real-time information, cities and families could turn to intelligent energy consumption based on real-time needs.
The unprecedented speed, connectivity and high capacity of 5G can improve our road safety. With connected cars that are able to exchange information in real-time, drivers will be able to “see” the road ahead to avoid incidents and unsafe conditions. Notably, 5G is the building block of connected and automated transport, of self-driving cars, trains and automated port services.
Entertainment will become more engaging through immersive and integrated media. Collaborative video and game production will become easier, faster and simpler. 5G supports faster uploads; we can share more user-generated, high-quality content and faster downloads to enjoy more high-quality games & videos. 5G opens up new possibilities. Quick 3D imaging could put us into our favourite movie scenes, make eSports more interactive and let us virtually try-on clothes. The low latency, quick response time of the 5G networks means we could enjoy a smooth, no-lag experience in augmented reality entertainment.
The unprecedented performance and reliability levels achieved by 5G connectivity services will make it compatible with the most demanding professional use case requirements currently contemplated by multiple industrial sectors. From that perspective, industries and businesses will be the key players in driving innovation enabled by 5G, which will in turn accelerate digitisation of multiple vertical sectors.
With 5G, faster and more stable connections can connect teams in multiple locations at once, opening more opportunities to adopt remote working and giving employees the opportunity to work from home. Sharing heavy data files will become much faster and easier, enhancing data sharing and making long-distance collaboration much easier.
The Internet of Things (IoT) will allow objects to exchange information in real-time. 5G will support real-time control of devices, which means factories could upgrade their automated processes and interconnected machines to improve efficiency and employee safety. Reliable and seamless connections can have workers monitor hard to reach or dangerous environments and remotely operate equipment. 5G can bring much needed safety to dangerous professions – construction work, mining, emergency services, etc. Similarly, the real-time high reliability response of 5G will bring healthcare application like remote consultation or telesurgery to operational reality.
The availability of great amounts of data and the possibility to quickly access and share it, will give businesses insights into their operations in order to improve and optimise them; expanding growth, increasing savings and improving customer experience.
5G technology has been designed to be more energy efficient than previous generations. This is mainly achieved through low-power, small antennas and through efficient technology where transmission power is only generated when really needed. Notably, 5G uses more systematically a power saving mode where network resources are activated only when there is active traffic.
5G will also support greener and more sustainable energy consumption. 5G networks will support better management of renewable energy resources and allow families, businesses, and cities to have more insight into their energy use and a smarter way to manage it. Internet of Things (IoT) enabled objects can allow for better monitoring and control of energy use. Combined with 5G networks, which can transmit information in real-time, energy use can be based on real-time needs in smart homes and smart cities.
Connectivity is one of the key areas that the Commission is continually strengthening across the EU. 5G plays a key role in making better, faster and more reliable connections available to everyone throughout the EU.
The Commission has been taking steps to bring this revolutionary technology to life in Europe. In 2013, the Commission set up the 5G public-private partnership (5G-PPP) to secure Europe’s leadership and potential in new markets. Together with the industry, the initiative has seen the launch of projects in areas such as smart cities, e-health, intelligent transport, education or entertainment & media.
It was followed by the Commission’s 5G Action Plan, published in 2016, which set out the road map for Member States to set the scene for 5G services and products. The plan includes coordinating regulatory measures, granting operators access to radio spectrum for 5G networks, incentivising investment in network infrastructure and promoting 5G trials. Market developments and 5G availability can be tracked through the EU 5G Observatory.
Europe is leading in 5G trials for vertical sectors, such as transport, media, and manufacturing. Some of the areas in which the Commission is strongly collaborating with the industry under the 5G-PPP is Connected and automated mobility in transport, which would allow for autonomous or remotely controlled vehicles on roads, in-land waterways, railroads and in ports. Connected vehicles will be able to access mission-critical information in real time. This will contribute to safety, to a lower carbon footprint, and to a broad range of digital services for drivers and passengers. In parallel, to develop large-scale testing sites, the Commission is continuously supporting and funding 5G connectivity on designated major transport paths, or connected cross-border corridors.
5G can transform whole cities! Smart cities are cities whose networks, for example transport, utility and lightning, are equipped with advanced connectivity making them easier to manage, significantly more sustainable, efficient and safer. Smart cities are synonymous with networks that generate and make available real-time information on traffic, energy consumption and needs so urban services can be better managed by public administrations and better serve commuters. In the EU, there are 5G trial cities that are continually advancing to create 5G ecosystems that can support smart city technology and services.
Find more information on 5G in the EU.
10. The Commission adopted an implementing regulation on 5G networks. Why do we need new legislation?
5G networks will use much smaller antennas compared to current systems. At the same time, the new antennas will achieve much better coverage and higher connection speeds. They will also be less visible and produce less electromagnetic emissions. In fact, they could be compared to Wi-Fi installations.
As existing rules on small cells have been burdensome and fragmented, the EU adopted in June 2020 uniform rules to avoid heavy procedures for antennas of low volume, weight, visual impact and emission. This regulation also ensures high levels of protection against electromagnetic fields, in line with Council Recommendation 1999/519/EC, and a smooth integration into the surrounding environment.
The new rules are set by the Commission Implementing Regulation in accordance with the EU telecom rules set in the European Electronic Communications Code, adopted in 2018 and transposed into Member States’ national law by the end of 2020.
11. Some citizens are concerned about 5G and Electromagnetic fields (EMFs). What does 5G mean for EMF?
Some people are worried that more antennas means more EMF exposure. The European Commission takes protection of public health very seriously and ensures that any emissions are subject to high precautionary measures. 5G networks will use small cells with lower power levels and therefore lower EMF exposure levels than the existing large cells in 4G networks. A recent Commission study showed that in urban areas where 5G will be deployed and 4G antennas are still in use, the overall exposure levels will modestly increase, but this will still be a long way below safe limits – which are 50 times lower than levels at which health effects are possible. As the 4G antennas go out of use, exposure levels will go down.
Moreover, 4G and older generation antennas, which operate with higher emission powers, are expected to be used less and less in these areas. The new, small cell networks will develop and distribute sources of electromagnetic fields more evenly at lower power levels.
The European Union takes a precautionary approach by recommending maximum exposure limits with a wide safety margin. This means that EU exposure limits for the general public are set at 50 times lower than the emission levels at which health effects may start to be seen, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. The Council Recommendation 1999/519/EC sets out strict limits for electromagnetic fields in line with the guidelines set by the 1998 International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP)these guidelines have been adapted in 2020 in order to take into account the new 5G applications and will be assessed accordingly.
EMF exposure from 5G networks, including through the use of new frequency bands, has to remain below the recommended limits - just like 2G, 3G and 4G networks.
New ICNIRP guidelines have been released in March 2020. ICNIRP 1998 guidelines are protective for current applications of radio frequency EMFs, while their new guidelines incorporate also EMF exposure for frequencies above 6 GHz, where future 5G technologies will operate. This will result in reducing the maximum magnitude of localized exposure.
Limits for the exposure to EMFs that are currently recommended at international and EU level were classified by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) at the third level in a scale of five levels of risk, which puts them in the group with other ‘possibly carcinogenic’ elements, such as pickled vegetables. This means that radio EMFs are less risky than eating red meat, working night shifts or drinking hot coffee, which are at the second level and assessed as ‘probably carcinogenic’. Radio EMFs are considered even less risky than air pollution, wood dust or alcoholic beverages, which, being at the first level, fall into the ‘carcinogenic’ category'. More information on classifications is available on the International Agency for Cancer Research website.
14. ICNIRP published new guidelines on EMF in March 2020. What is the position of the Commission regarding the new guidelines?
ICNIRP announced that while their 1998 guidelines include current commercial applications of radio frequency EMFs, their new guidelines have incorporated a number of adaptations for the use of new technologies, particularly for EMF frequencies above 6 GHz. Future 5G technologies will operate on these frequencies, which have the result of reducing the maximum magnitude of localized exposure that a person can receive.
ICNIRP indicated that all scientific literature of good scientific quality was used to set the guidelines including major reviews by the World Health Organization (2014), the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (2015, 2016, 2018), the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (2015), as well as individual studies identified following those reviews, and that the literature included research searching for effects of both brief and long-term exposures to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF EMF), on both immediate (e.g. pain) and delayed (e.g. cancer) health outcomes. This included evaluation of self-reported hypersensitivity to RF EMF exposure. See ICNIRP FAQ
The European Commission will consider the new ICNIRP’s guidelines findings and re-examine the situation in relation to the 1999 Council Recommendation.
A few Member States have decided that the limits should be at a level lower than the maximum exposure limits set out in the ICNIRP guidelines or in the Council Recommendation.
The health protection policy is a competence of the Member States, who are free to adopt stricter requirements. The Commission remains confident that the currently recommended limits are adequate to protect public health.
You can find out more about cybersecurity and 5G networks on the dedicated FAQ page.