How the IEC has been preparing for 5G

IEC Technical Committee 106 deals with safety testing standards for 5G and other mobile networks

Fifth-generation cellular networks, known as 5G, look set to transform the way we live and work by connecting not just people but things in the so-called Internet of Things. It’ll mean smarter motorways and smarter factories, and being able to control your car, home and pretty much everything else from a single device.

Mike Wood, Chair of IEC Technical Committee 106, covering the measurement and calculation methods to assess human exposure to electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields.

e-tech spoke to Mike Wood, who’s been heavily involved, in the roll-out of 5G, in Australia, and also chairs IEC TC 106 that deals with safety testing standards for mobile devices, base stations and wireless communications systems.

Could you describe in layman’s terms the work of TC 106?

TC 106 is charged with developing the testing standards for electromagnetic emissions. In simple terms, when you've got your mobile devices and the networks we have to write the testing procedures for testing those for RF exposure.

We don't set the health standards — they're set by the World Health Organization and the health agencies — but we write the testing standards to ensure that they're tested safely. So, if you think of all the mobile devices — and most people have one, I think there's nearly eight billion mobile devices across the globe — we write the technical specifications and the testing standards for all of those phones and the networks that go with them.

It's a huge responsibility and one that really drives our members because they know they're making this large contribution to society and it's a real challenge and one that we're very excited to be on this journey with.

TC 106 recently published a new IEC Technical Report on evaluating human exposure to radio frequency fields in the vicinity of base stations. What’s in the report and how will it help stakeholders?

The new Technical Report shows how you test base stations and wireless networks for compliance with the emission testing standards. It provides worked examples that include 5G and small cells for the first time.

It's basically an example of case studies, where we've gone out and we've tested these networks and small cells and we've demonstrated that in the case studies. It's such a useful document because it provides operators with the latest methods for testing.

It provides the facility owners and the regulators with worked examples. And for municipalities and people that own buildings where there are 5G base stations, it gives them the confidence that these new technologies are tested to the latest standards.

It really ticks all of the boxes. You've got the detailed standard but you've got the Technical Report that actually showcases how it's done. And that's the real advantage of having this Technical Report right when 5G is being rolled out.

It demonstrates the latest testing methods and more importantly it provides global consistency across all of the countries using IEC Standards.

Turning to 5G, in what way is it different to 4G technology?

I think for the everyday person 5G is going to mean that they can upload and download data much quicker. And in the years to come, when we get more spectrum, they’re going to be able to do it super-fast.

It’s also going to be the ability to connect millions of devices. With the previous technologies it has been people being connected and their devices, but now it’s going to be the Internet of Things and the extra capacity that the spectrum’s going to bring means that we can cater for all the millions of devices coming.

But I think the really exciting thing is the low latency and that’s the response time of this new 5G technology being much quicker. For example, it’s going to help automated self-driving vehicles, it’s really going to help have safer motorways and safer systems.

But I think the medical side of it, where you can do remote surgery and remote medical applications, it’s so exciting what this technology is going to deliver.

To what extent is it going to be a major game changer?  

I think, with the low latency aspect, that it’s going to be a significant game changer because if you think of the applications that can follow from that, in industrial robotics and stuff that we haven’t been able to do before. We don’t know where it’s going to lead, but we do know it’s going to be a revolution in terms of what it can do.

They’re calling it the fourth industrial revolution. The low-latency, the extra capacity and the fact that you’ve got much greater speeds, is going to revolutionize telecommunications.

How has the IEC been preparing for this?

Well, that’s a very good question because they brought forward the specifications for 5G. They wanted to roll it out earlier.

So what we did is we made sure that we had the best experts from industry, academia the test houses and government regulators. We started testing the test networks early.

We had to look at how the devices were going to work, how the base stations were going to work, and then write the testing standards for all devices in the new spectrum and in the existing spectrum, and then test the networks. So we had to look at small cells and radio base stations.

First we wrote some test procedures with technical reports so that we could harness all of that global knowledge into these first rounds of reports. And now we’re finalizing the full standards. And that was to make sure we could meet the accelerated time frame, so that when 5G was here, at the IEC we were ready and we were ready with our standards, which we are.

Staying with the theme of preparing for the future, I know you are a strong supporter of the IEC Young Professionals Programme. Why do you think the YPs are so important?

The Young Professionals are fundamental to IEC because they're our future leaders and they're our future technology experts. If you take the work we're doing in TC 106, where we're working on the new 5G standards, it's the young engineers that have been developing these standards because they know the technology.

We've got YPs working with us and in fact we've just come back from a meeting in Helsinki where the team is a really young mix of people of all ages, of all diversities and from all regions. The YPs want to work with us and in 10 years they will be the convenors, the chairs and the secretaries.

It's fundamental that IEC keeps this programme up and encourages more young professionals to work with us because they're our future leaders.

Mike Wood is Chair of IEC Technical Committee 106, which prepares International Standards on measurement and calculation methods to assess human exposure to electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields. He is a Distinguished Professional with Telstra and General Manager EME Strategy, Governance and Risk Management.