Will 5G in the U.S. mess with Canada and the worlds weather forecasts?
As a scientific concept the butterfly effect can be traced back to an American mathematician who was making weather models in the nineteen sixties as a reference point for popular culture. You should know there have been three butterfly effect movies for instance but you'd probably traces its origins back to Jurassic Park and a brief but memorable scene. It's still not clear on cast in it said simply building connectability in conflict system. Shorthand is the butterfly. The Butterfly became in Central Park. They ran instead. As and the reason I mentioned the butterfly effect is because that's scenario that showed up in an experiment and is very likely to happen sometime soon. In real time in one thousand nine hundred sixty one when this all started. Edward Lorenz was a mathematician who was running a new miracle computer model trying to predict the weather at one point. He entered the value of just one particular condition as point. Eight five zero six instead of the longer but more accurate point five zero six one two seven and when he did that the entire weather. Our prediction changed everywhere. Today we use a very similar incredibly complex formula to predict the weather around the world over the next x three days or five days or ten days. It's a system that is just as vulnerable to tiny changes in the information. It uses as Lorenzo's predictions from. I'm almost sixty years ago. Were not brings us to the wireless spectrum and to five G. Technology in the United States specifically and to a very real reasons that our weather forecast here in Canada and everywhere else in the world are about to become much less reliable. I'm Jordan with Rawlings. This is the big story Dan for Ghana they science reporter based in Washington. DC He works for Buzzfeed News. Hey Dan hey how're you doing. I'm doing well thank you. I'm going to get you to start today's story with the absolute basics for people who don't follow this and haven't been paying attention so what is five so five gs the next generation of wireless list phone service and sort of Wi fi networks for everybody. It's promising you know better faster stronger. Brighter Happier Wireless wireless service to everybody. How is it different from four G.? Three G. Lt. All that stuff five G. will be able to carry abroad or stream of information the user. So you'll be able to watch movies Without buffering more easily you'll be able to basically have more information transmitted to your phone than than previously more easily. It's basically just an improvement in our current service but everyone is looking forward to it in the media business because they're hoping people start streaming movies like crazy and make like a fortune for Hollywood and everyone else right. And how quickly is it being adopted. It's happening now. So South Korea's gone the five G. and its role down In North America Ed at least forty cities is this going city by city location by location all over the world the perception is that the US and China and are in a race to roll out five services and define the standards sanders for five G.. That will in turn Enrich the technology companies making the equipment that supplies these five G. networks. How much money is at stake for these companies? How big idealists hundreds of billions of dollars? It's it's the electronic economy of the future. So where did the first red flag come from. Concerning Weather forecasts the weather community has been concerned about preserving its access to important wavelengths for decades In the five G.. Case rumblings things really started in the last year or two and sort of technical meetings And burst into sort of public light around April February April of last year where FCC and Congress started getting into discussions about. How are we going to auction off this? One spectrum is particularly close to important way link for weather forecasting so there was fighting back and forth When the auction of This particular wavelengths twenty four gigahertz started Around February march of last year Congress had hearings in April and in May Where sort of the technical fight between two federal agencies came to light and It is sort of bubbled and burgled since then and there was a big international meeting in November where some standards were said. That cause more consternation in the weather community and Congress again decided to you intervene demanding an investigation of the whole situation. And that sort of at the point where we said okay. This is risen from the technical level to the political level that we really ought to bring it to our readers. Attention can you you explain to me. how weather forecasts and weather satellites work and why there's concern here So yeah easily No actually it's complicated but The weather satellites are in space right and they're looking down so they get a beautiful view of the atmosphere. That's the key thing right. They're not pinned into the atmosphere where you know we can only see ten ten miles. The atmosphere looking up from her. They're seeing across hundreds of miles so they're beautiful devices for for looking across a broad swath of the atmosphere and the problem is like they have to figure out what's going hang on down so they do that. By looking at the characteristics of certain molecules that are important in the weather like water vapor and trying to collect all that data and they in turn feed him into these weather models and what those are essentially are collections of what are called non linear partial differential equations. If this is like the top end of your calculus classes he went on and did that. Systems of these that are solves continuously with super computers. And so all the data that they're collecting you know the the humidity the temperature the presence of Water Vapor Ice Snow Everything else is fed into these models essentially mathematical models and they're crunched away by supercomputers and they come out with predictions for what the weather should be like the next couple of days. It's a global thing. It's the entire globe being calculated this way and like two hundred cells Dell's across the globe so it's a gigantic circular math problem. It's being solved twenty four hours a day. Continuously using data taken from these weather satellites that are taking into the atmosphere. It's it's not a thing that's just like. They're looking down at Toronto and seeing okay. It's going to be windy tomorrow. It's actually a gigantic math project. It's working all the time and requires a lot of data in order to be accurate and the crazy thing is with partial differential equations They are are susceptible. These non linear affects the famous butterfly. Effect where you have you. You know the butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and then there's hurricane over Lisbet and so small errors in data in one location means that the solution that they get for six days later or three days later somewhere else way out of whack and that's the kind of problem that they're worried about With interference in the frequencies that they look at to determine the weather that makes sense But how does the five G. Frequency mess with that so the the five G. Frequencies or the butterfly's wings flapping over these cities and putting bad data into the numerical models of the of the global weather forecast. So you basically inject a whole lot of noise over New York City and that throws off the signal for this whole solution of the global Weather the forecast and you might have screwed up whether forecasts everywhere else days later or you know hours later but somewhere else so it's not like Okay Hey there's a lot of phone traffic over Toronto and it screws up the the weather forecast for Toronto. It's there's a lot of phone traffic all over Los Angeles Chicago Dubuque and who knows knows where else and all of a sudden three days later. The weather forecast in Toronto is screwed up for a mathematical reasons that we can't predict very easily. So if you look up numerical Weather prediction and Google. There's a beautiful Free picture it doesn't help you with the podcast you might give you an idea of the cell-by-cell sort of solution that they have to do this kind. The calculation it really is a gigantic math problem. That's being done all the time by the various weather centers around the world why five G. specifically what is it about that frequency so it's not five G. in particular its interference. With the frequency twenty three point eight gigahertz which is the resonant frequency of of water vapor in the atmosphere which is kind of important to know it water vapors doing right you have to know your humidity. It's it's basically a measure of humidity in the atmosphere and what's happened is the FCC in the United States is sold off off Rights to broadcast frequency. That's really close to twenty four gigahertz rights. Twenty three point eight twenty four pretty close right and the problem is noise. It's just like radio. Stations aren't allowed to broadcast his who close to each other. That's why there's numbers on your radio station radio on your radio channel. You can't have them Broadcasting over top of each each other. And it's worse here because the water molecules it turns on our radio station so they're not competing with these other signals. That are bleeding into them. They're just being bled onto and so the fear. Is that unless you you keep a really good buffer between the frequency at which this natural phenomenon happened and the broadcast which is going to be noisy as Helena totally unpredictable way because who knows when he was GonNa pick pick up the phone and make a phone call that you're going to have Totally unpredictable interference in the readings from weather satellites and in turn that garbage is going to get fed into the weather models. We rely on to predict the weather and then in unpredictable ways. Our weather forecasts are GonNa be screwed up so could the FCC just have sold off and different frequency and avoided this problem They could the problem. mm-hmm is that the frequencies are getting crowded right. We're becoming more and more Real reliant on the spectrum and there's only so much to go around you know you can only put so many buildings up in downtown Toronto right and so the real estate is very pricey there compared to you know somewhere else and so things are getting really tight and this A sort of a part of the spectrum that's set aside for emergency. Communications and weather and scientific aspirations is looking like free public land to the Telecoms and they want it And it's you know they're saying we're going to give you a lot of money and build a better society so lotteries and give it to them. The solution has been that they just require the the broadcasters to use a wider buffer and that's essentially what the fight is like how wide a buffer can be put around this these frequencies to protect them where you know the telecoms you're basically saying like you don't need much of a buffer at all whereas the scientists are saying we need a gigantic buffer and no-one NASA to study saying like it's quite a wide buffer we need and the FCC is saying that it's garbage we don't believe you and you know The problem is that it's a kind of gigantic natural experiment. We're going to see who's right but you know in the past NASA Asa Noah's been pretty damn good at Predicting this kind of thing. So it makes the weather guys or or you know the people who bring you your phone search you know. Who Do you trust Who has a better track record? That's basically what we're talking about here. Do we have any idea how badly the forecasts might be impacted. Do we know where and winter is. Is it just random. It's both random and It'll increase over. Time is the five G. networks build out and but it's a question of how much are the telecom. I'm sort of listening to stories like this one yours right now. These complaints and sort of being prudent and not and not going after this part of the spectrum so much themselves so they might be that eh they take special care you know they realize this is a problem and they take special care in it has no effect it might be that they ignore it completely they say. FCC's let's do it so off we go and they're we're GONNA cause a lot of interference we don't know yet. It's this has yet to be built. But the prediction has been that you know. The weather forecast go back to this intially. Nineteen eighty level by the head of no. We're we're in nineteen eighty and if you've got three days of weather prediction you're in good shape and you know They were just much less reliable. They say there's a seventy percent chance of rain doesn't mean it's GonNa Rain Right. That means that there's a seven and ten chances it's GonNa rain but you could be pretty sure that there's a seventeen ten chance of rain in the future might be. Maybe that's not such a good guess. You know so causes a lot of problem a lot of certainty for people you know. Everyone's gotTa Pack Berlow Time. You mentioned that it could make three day forecasts less reliable or kind of take it back to from from an eight hundred ten to seven at attend and but are there are bigger implications in terms of severe weather events which we're now seeing more frequently like A. Is this going to make it harder to figure out where hurricanes are coming or massive snowstorm. So that kind of stuff. It could potentially make predictions for things like massive hurricanes massive snow storms. The weather track hard predict. You know it's nicer to know. It's it's tamed. Miami seven days ahead of time rather than three days ahead of time the hurricanes a good example where you see these tracks like we know that six days it'll be here where where we might have the point. That'd be the point. Where like in six days? We have no idea what it's going to be. That sort of thing cost a fortune right you. The company start packing up and moving for for no reason six days ahead of time and then turn around and send the trucks back to you know with the goods and so you've just caused a whole lot of cost to everyone which whole society will feel for no the reason and just to be clear. This is a fight. That's going on in the United States right now this is the FCC that sold it but the potential implications are global. It's the global fight It's focused in the US right now because Congress asking for an investigation And the FCC auction spectrum to US telecoms. Richard Hugely influential wind chill but it. It is a global fight affect the weather. Globally and it is the International Union that have the meeting in November in Switzerland and set aside a buffer levels to operate operate on this part of the spectrum so five G. across the world will run on the same frequency everywhere. It's not like the buffer could be larger in Canada than it is in the. US asser as it is in Italy or whatever the five zero run on various spectrums that the it you The National Telegraph Union says it is allowed to run on one of them. will will be this twenty four gigahertz spectrum that they actually see is Licensed to telecoms so. It doesn't matter if Italy says no you can't do it or the Europeans pins who have been more concerned about this and the FCC say no no you can't do. The State Bay fought for and got a stricter but not perfect buffer At the meeting November. It doesn't matter because it's still might be the weather prediction over. You know Rome that's screwed up. Because of bad data that's been injected into the weather models from the United States so what have other countries said to the United States is have been pushing back against that frequency of particular well. The fight was in November at the. It Meeting Meeting the International Telegraph Union meeting and basically the European spectrum authority fought back against FCC which one in a very loose buffer and so they got a stronger one but it's a compromise it's a it's a consensus organization. And so they got a stronger one. But it's still at least eight times more powerful ban The Europeans want it. And then then Noah suggested would be safe to so there was a little bit of a push back but it's not fair to call it a compromise because it's still one poses a threat of interference to The weather forecast. So what happens next. both politically and I guess in terms of we just have to wait and see how badly The forecasts are impacted as this thing. Ramps up so on the politics side What happens is that the Government Accountability Office will likely pursue investigation of how noah NASA and the FCC came to loggerheads on this and sort of what went wrong? Why were these people talking to each other? And that might lead need to Congress to take more steps to legislate stronger limits on that in the United States on on what frequencies can be used or what size buffer could be used. It's possible label. That would that would be one place where the action would be. It might be that There's a reaction in Europe said this going on and you know they have a say in it or and push limits that affect Telecom interests so strongly that they steer away from this but we really have to see I mean the suspicion. I'm hearing from people. I spoke to more people. Blues talking to the story is that we're just GONNA have to see how these five G. networks so he's base stations are built out and they'll be a certain point where it'll be apparent like hey. The weather predictions are less. I accurate than they used to be. You know we should have Data you know you'll take six months soi at one point and say yeah. Their predictions were more off now than they were five years ago and one of the most likely candidate is in fact. This five G. interference that the problem of course is that it won't be interference that happens in the systematically that can be removed like a lot of the Telecom Dot Com folks seem to think you know it'll be random and so that'll be make it a little harder to detect but a certain point you know expecting the next few years or so you know the weather forecast will start to degrade and that'll be detectable taxable and then we'll have to turn around and have an emergency. It meeting you know. Further restrict the buffers or whatever as it is the plan now is that the limits are on the the buffers until two thousand twenty seven In order to encourage the industry to build out and then they get a little tighter after twenty twenty seven and I t was only supposed to only scheduled take a look at this again in two thousand twenty three so you know worst case. We're looking at twenty twenty three for another reconsideration in the bigger picture. I mean you said something Fascinating getting a little while ago about how you can only build. So many buildings downtown I'm presuming that five. G. Won't be the end of this and that there will be six G or whatever else. comes next. And you know they're really thinking. Yeah where's the where the limits like. What do you do at that point when it's just too crowded so the the weather forecasters are really terrified about this because there's a lot of other valuable Parts of the spectrum too they need for for other phenomena for hurricanes and tornadoes and things like that and what if those get bought up and never really you know have a hard time telling the weather to people so this is a question we're going to have to solve As a sort of global society. If we're GONNA GONNA you know operate the airwaves. In such a crowded manner there has to be A better system to bring more players at the table than just The telecoms dot com in order to decide what parts of the radio spectrum are actually preserved for things like weather forecasting or eating a scientific endeavors. There's a similar fight going on right now over satellites and and astronomy. You know where there's so many satellites going up that there's the strong numbers are complaining is getting the way they're telescopes and they can't see the sky you know this is same. Similar similar. kind of crowd is going on as we become sort of a more space based society that is very valuable Real estate is going to become one. More fought over fraud and there's nobody nobody There's no global body to Judah Kate that really well I mean there is the it it you and you know we could do it through the UN. America would love that Yeah well it's a hell of a country You can speculate. How likely that would be to Go over on the other and You know we have. The telecoms also want to collect money from the Chinese and the Indians and the Canadians and the Europeans. And so if they raise enough of Ruckus then You know things could change. It's just a huge fight a very lucrative industry this is a very well resource industry. Telecom Industry Sri Right and these are the people. We're talking on a cell phone right now. The concern of course is that you know anything sort of vaguely scientific or it doesn't you know enrich those powerful industries will Komo get a shot that's Denver Ghanem Science reporter for Buzzfeed News. This was was the big story for more from US head to the big story podcast dot ca find us on twitter at the big story FBI or in your favorite podcast application. Whatever whatever one you might prefer if it lets you leave us a review give us five stars? Tell us what you think. Thanks for listening Jordan Heath Rawlings. We'll talk tomorrow yeah.