Summit to decide future of 5G, weather forecasts

Heated negotiations on the future of 5G and its implications on weather forecasting are taking place at the World Radiocommunication Conference that is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from 28 October to 22 November. The month-long conference is convened every three or four years by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union to review and revise radio regulations.

More than 3,000 delegates, hailing from nearly every country in the world are gathered at the Red Sea resort in a bid to resolve an ongoing turf war over highly prized radio frequency bands used by meteorologists and at the same time coveted by telecommunication companies.

Prominent scientists have already expressed their concerns on the debut of 5G wireless networks, which promise customers faster internet speeds but also inadvertently interferes with radio frequencies that meteorologists rely on to make weather forecasts.

The conflict arises because 5G networks will be using a frequency band very close to the one that weather satellites use to observe water vapor. That interference could cost lives and fortunes when it comes to preparing for disastrous weather events.

Previous generations of cellular wireless technology, like 4G and LTE, operate along lower radio frequencies. To achieve the superfast speeds, 5G will need to be able to operate at frequencies higher than what exists for 4G and LTE.. One of those frequency bands is just above 24GHz, but just under 24GHz is the frequency at which water vapor molecules emit a little bit of a radio signal.

This tiny signal from the water vapor layer is very valuable to scientists who are studying the weather. They are worried that 5G could be a noisy neighbor, unintentionally leaking signals into bands next door, which could interfere with their ability to monitor water vapor. Studying water vapor is important for predicting the trajectory of storms, forecasting sunny weather or rain, and keeping tabs on the changing climate.

To keep 5G from interfering with forecasting, scientists have pushed for strict limits on the noise that 5G devices are allowed to generate outside of the 24GHz channel. But the US Federal Communications Commission, which decided in March to auction off that part of the radio spectrum, has proposed much less stringent limits.

In May, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Congress that the FCC’s proposed interference limits could roll back 40 years of progress on weather forecasting and result in satellites losing nearly 80 percent of the data they are able to collect now. The resulting inaccuracy could mean real consequences for people on the ground. “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,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told Congress in April.