The battle for 5G has already begun, which could put a huge dent in healthcare innovation.

All of the newest proposed healthcare revolutions require a bump in internet speed and bandwidth. Telehealth streaming, mobile clinics, remote surgery, augmented reality, and Internet-of-Things devices all require a quantum leap forward in always-connected internet infrastructure.

But why does the US state department want to issue a ban for many kinds of 5G technology? With the potential for data leaks, is 5G safe for hospitals and healthcare environments? How does it affect existing medical tablets and other already-deployed hospital gear?

What is 5G?

5G is the name for the fifth generation of mobile internet, a successor to 4G, the kind used in clinician cellphones or hospital tablet PCs. The difference between 5G and the current 4G is vast, both in speed, signal type, hardware, and architecture.

5G mobile internet is much faster, so fast in fact that many are considering it as a replacement (or at least significant competition) for wired cable internet altogether.  But how does it achieve the promise of these blindingly fast mobile speeds?

Step one is to understand how the current 4G works. 4G, and previous generations, tended to use microwaves to send and receive signals. The frequency of these signals is somewhere in the range between 3 gigahertz on the high end and 700 megahertz on the low. Now, the good thing about these kinds of signals is that they’re good at traveling long-distance and penetrating walls.

5G, on the other hand, use high-frequency signals, from 30 gigahertz to 300 gigahertz. If you’re doing the math, that’s easily 100 times faster than 4G. Of course, that does come with a trade-off: these high-frequency signals don’t travel as far, and their ability to penetrate buildings is limited. This means that while 5G internet is incredibly, unbelievably fast, it can only be so fast over a very small area.

Which, in turn, is why 5G is so expensive to develop and install, even for the big telecoms. Blanketing an entire city in 5G coverage, for instance, is going to require installing antennas practically everywhere. Luckily, the antennas for 5G are far smaller than the cell towers required for 4G, but it’s still quite a comprehensive install nonetheless.

Why Do Hospitals Need 5G?

The good thing about telehealth, for instance, is that it can help rural and elderly patients, reduce wait times and congestion in hospitals, and create a more connected relationship between the patient and their own health. And, best of all, all of this can be done with existing camera-equipped medical computers and tablets.

The downside is, of course, that very few hospital networks are equipped for the massive data load that is created by dozens of audio or video streamed telehealth visits, or constant feeds from Internet of Things monitoring devices.

While the promise of telehealth is solid, the infrastructure is shakier. Future-proofing healthcare isn’t just about buying more devices — it’s about having the speed and interconnectivity to help as many patients as possible.

Consider, too, the applications for procedures like remote surgery. Surgery is a delicate process that can’t be held back by a slow internet connection. If a specialist halfway across the country can do robot-assisted surgery without having to hop on a plane, they can help five patients a day instead of one.

Consider the future of augmented and virtual reality, as well, and the potential application of AI technology in healthcare. All of these potentially game-changing healthcare technologies require the kind of internet speed and bandwidth capacity that modern hospitals just don’t have.

What’s the 5G Controversy?

Why is 5G in the news, and how does it affect healthcare?

Well, it depends on how cynical you’re feeling. Essentially, some countries have expressed fears in the future security of 5G. Most of these fears stem from one of the largest peddlers of 5G wares and infrastructure: Huawei, a Chinese cell phone and general telecom company.

Some argue that Huawei being so closely involved in 5G installations around the world could create a potential security problem. Huawei and other supporters disagree, arguing that there’s been no history of that kind of activity, and that the network is just as secure as any other.

What the “Pro-Ban” Side is Saying

Because of certain laws in China, Chinese corporations can be required by government mandate to turn over sensitive information should there be a matter of national security. Some say that China could use this clause to essentially access every network that Huawei has its hand in, which could potentially give them unfettered control over all data on the entire global 5G internet.

The United States and Australia have already instituted full or partial bans of certain Huawei tech being used in their networks, and it looks like Canada may be joining them. Many countries in Europe have expressed concerns over the potential security risks, but have been reticent to join any kind of forced ban. Instead, they are closely investigating all components of the network, checking for backdoors and firmware loopholes that could allow that kind of spying.

Speaking to the Verge, Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at UC Berkeley, said “Telecommunications systems . . . are specifically designed to be wiretapped, so a little bit of sabotage in the specific wiretap-enabling routines and it would be very, very hard to detect.”

If those concerned about 5G are correct — even partially correct — that could create an enormous problem for healthcare facilities looking to embrace 5G for all of its patient and clinician benefits. Patient records are sacrosanct, and that kind of widespread data theft — or even data vulnerability — could compromise the information of millions of people.

Combine that with HIPAA breaches and fines, and healthcare companies have a vested interest in making sure the future of 5G is safe from tampering.

What the Anti-Ban People Are Saying

Those on the other side of the fight believe the fears about Huawei and it’s involvement in 5G development have been overblown, if not outright fabricated.

They tend to argue that there’s never been any proof of Huawei doing anything of the sort, and that its ties to the Chinese government are no different than Apple or Google’s ties to the U.S. government.

This is born out by many countries around the globe refusing to go along with any kind of ban. The United Arab Emirates has come out saying they’ll use Huawei tech, and even the traditional US ally, the United Kingdom, is indicating that it won’t join the proposed ban (but does believe that caution is warranted).

Huawei claims the controversy is a tempest in a teakettle, nothing more than a political maneuver as part of the incipient trade war between China and the United States. Huawei executives have come out to say America’s arrest of Meng Wangzhou, the CFO of Huawei, and this new ban are nothing more than gambits to suppress a competing foreign company.

Will the Fight for 5G Affect Hospitals?

Whether you believe the security threat to global 5G is real, or just a political dogbone to fight over, the fact is the fate of 5G is still up for grabs. Some say bans could greatly slow down the adoption of the next level of internet technology.

However, Huawei isn’t the only game in town when it comes to 5G internet, and some are saying the ban will just allow other companies to step in and take up the slack. Nokia, Ericsson, and AT&T are all heavily involved in 5G installation, and are just as globally available as Huawei.

Whichever way you feel about the controversy around 5G and the China / US saber-rattling, healthcare IT professionals, CFOs, and other decision makers will need to keep a close eye on the proceedings before leaping fully into the 5G pool.

Investing in Current Tech

While the future isn’t always certain, there is some small comfort: since all proposed 5G networks are compatible with 4G, any existing mobile devices are still a solid investment.

To learn more about 4G devices like medical tablets that will still be able to survive no matter how the fight for 5G works out, contact Cybernet today.

What do you think about the potential ban? Are the fears overblown, or is there truly something to worry about?