Weather agencies are warning that signals from new 5G mobile networks will make it harder to predict and track deadly storms, as the fiercest hurricane in more than 80 years tore across the Bahamas to threaten the U.S. East Coast.
The global mobile industry is pushing back against meteorologists, who say radio waves from the fast cellular networks will interfere with the ability of weather satellites to detect resonance from water particles. Those faint radio signatures offer clues to the future intensity and direction of storms.
5G technology is set to supercharge smartphones and connect factories at data speeds at least ten times faster than current networks. It uses frequencies of 24.25-27.5 gigahertz, while the weather satellites detect frequencies that are just a notch lower, at 23.8 GHz.
"It's a trade-off between the economic benefits of 5G and the costs for human life," said Eric Allaix, national frequency manager at French weather agency Meteo-France. "The satellite won't be able to distinguish if these signals will be appearing because there's a hurricane coming, or if it's a consequence of the out-of-band emissions of this 5G technology."
Hurricane Dorian shows the importance of early storm detection as extreme weather events become more frequent because of climate change. It's one of only eight hurricanes in the Atlantic basin to reach wind speeds of 180 miles per hour (290 kph) since official data began in 1851. It's also the fifth category 5 storm in the Atlantic in four consecutive years.
And it's been particularly hard to predict.
Scientists at the U.S. space agency NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Meteo-France and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts say 5G signals will exacerbate the problem by interfering with satellite readings.
The dispute will come to a head at a conference next month in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where almost 200 national regulators will try to forge an agreement in the face of fierce lobbying by the telecommunications industry, space agencies and forecasters.
Mobile industry trade body the GSMA and the U.S. government's Federal Communications Commission say the high-bandwidth spectrum can be used for 5G with no disturbance to weather forecasting.
The GSMA has dismissed the concerns of forecasters as a "territorial dispute triggered by the space industry." It warned that $565 billion in economic value is in jeopardy if wireless operators are blocked from those airwaves, known as "millimeter-wave", as they're best for carrying the fastest data that allows the most advanced applications promised by 5G, such as automated factories, virtual reality and connected vehicles.
The London-based industry group has resisted a compromise proposal for a frequency "buffer zone" to ensure neither side interferes with the other's signals. One alternative could be to carve out regions in which either 5G or weather satellites can operate without interference.
This article was written by Thomas Seal and Angelina Rascouet, reporters for The Washington Post.