Global 5G wireless deal threatens weather forecasts


22 NOVEMBER 2019

Meteorologists say international standards for wireless technology could degrade crucial satellite measurements of water vapour.

Alexandra Witze

The international agency that regulates global telecommunications agreed to new radio-frequency standards on 21 November. Meteorologists say the long-awaited decision threatens the future of weather forecasting worldwide, by allowing transmissions from mobile-phone networks to degrade the quality of Earth observations from space.

Wireless companies are beginning to roll out their next-generation networks, known as 5G, around the world. The new agreement is meant to designate the radio frequencies over which 5G equipment can transmit. But some of those frequencies come perilously close to those used by satellites to gather crucial weather and climate data. To keep the signals from interfering with one another, researchers have proposed turning down the amount of noise allowed to leak from the 5G transmissions.

Negotiators at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, agreed to introduce two stages of protection for frequencies near 24 gigahertz — a range close to those that weather satellites use to detect the amount of water in the atmosphere. Companies that operate 5G networks will have a relatively loose standard from now until 2027. After that, the regulation gets stricter. The idea is to let 5G companies start building out networks now, and then add more protections for Earth observing as 5G transmissions become denser.

But having eight years with relatively lax regulation is “of grave concern” to weather forecasters, says Eric Allaix, a meteorologist at Météo-France in Toulouse who heads a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) group on radio-frequency coordination. The WMO is so upset that it read a statement of concern into the meeting minutes, he says.

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