Conspiracy theories slow public 5G adoption (but private 5G gets a boost)

When radio waves, viruses and tin foil hats collide. How the coronavirus crisis is changing how, where and why 5G is being deployed.

tinfoil man /crazy conspiracy theories / camouflage
Ryan McGuire / Gratisography (CC0)

It's fun to mock loony conspiracy theories about 5G.

But there are two reasons why false beliefs about 5G are no laughing matter.

First, people are now being attacked over it. And second, these wrong ideas are likely to slow down public 5G rollouts.

Anti-5G movement's lunatic fringe attacks

Since early April, anti-5G arson attacks against cell towers in the U.K., Europe  and Canada have brought attention to the lunatic wing of the growing anti-5G movement.

More than 77 towers in the U.K. have been sabotaged. (It turns out that most of the towers were not 5G towers; arsonists apparently can't tell the difference. Still, such attacks are clearly accelerating in number.)

More than 180 people have also been assaulted, either physically or verbally, over resistance to 5G. Victims include engineers installing equipment on the streets. One engineer was hospitalized after an anti-5G knife attack.

The rise in anti-5G arson stems from a range of conspiracy theories circulating online that associate 5G technology with the coronavirus.

One of the most common (and also dumbest) false rumors is that the symptoms caused by COVID-19 are actually caused by 5G towers, and that the coronavirus crisis is a fiction designed to cover up the role of 5G in harming health.

Another version accepts the conventional wisdom about the coronavirus and COVID-19, but falsely claims that 5G suppresses the human immune system and makes people more susceptible to coronavirus.

My favorite theory is that "Chinese technology" built into 5G base stations deliberately creates coronavirus spores as part of a plot against America. (The idea that electronics can create viruses reminds me of a loopy hoax that circulated years ago falsely claiming that "computer viruses" were escaping from PCs and infecting people.)

Celebrities have been amplifying and mainstreaming 5G conspiracy theories on social media, including TV star Amanda Holden, actor Woody Harrelson, and boxer Amir Khan.

Conspiracy theorists, hypochondriacs and neo-luddites have opposed all the Gs -- 2G, 3G and 4G. Before that, they opposed electrical power lines.

Is 5G uniquely ripe for opposition?

What's makes 5G so desirable is ultra-fast transmission speeds and ultra-low latency. These benefits are possible because of 5G's shorter wavelengths, which is a function of its higher frequencies.

Unfortunately, high-frequency, short wavelength radio waves disallows long distances between base station and the user's device -- less than 1,000 feet. (That's about the length of a football field if you include the end zones and the space between the end zones and the bleachers.) These signals also have a harder time penetrating walls, trees and, ironically, human bodies. 

All this means 5G base stations are greater in number, closer together, and closer to where humans live, work and travel.

Grass-roots movements are forming in the United States and around the world to oppose 5G. A coalition of 52 groups called Americans for Responsible Technology is pushing the FCC to pause 5G rollouts until science provides a definitive answer to the question of whether 5G affects health. (Note: Science is not great at providing definitive answers to health questions. We still don't know for sure if eggs are OK.)

Opposition like this doesn't emerge organically. It's fueled by skillful conspiracy theorists and state-sponsored disinformation propagandists.

The Russian government has a weird relationship to 5G and its conspiracy theories.

Russian policy is to suppress and censor anti-5G conspiracy theories in Russia in the Russian language, but to create and amplify anti-5G conspiracy theories outside of Russia and in other languages, especially English.

The reason is obvious. Russia hopes to "catch up" to more robust and diversified economies like China, the United States and Western Europe in part by aggressively speeding up 5G deployments within Russia and slowing it down outside of Russia.

Russia's main English-language state-owned propaganda network, Russia Today (RT), often refers to 5G radio waves as “radiations” and characterizes the rollouts of 5G as a “5G apocalypse,” a “dangerous experiment on humanity.” One RT reporter literally said that 5G “might kill you.” RT has claimed that 5G causes brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors, Alzheimer’s and learning disabilities in children. Think of the children!

RT works hand-in-glove with U.S. and international Facebook-based conspiracy groups. One organization invents a conspiracy and all the others report and amplify.

A minority of people "learn" and believe this information, and these views show up in man-on-the-street interviews on mainstream TV and go into the permanent record of city council meeting minutes, which are then reported on in small-town newspapers and blogs, creating the illusion that these ideas are ubiquitous and legitimate. Once they appear in mainstream publications, they're picked up again by the propagandists like RT -- this time well sourced.

It's easy for the FCC to ignore and steamroll these groups. But it's not so easy for local city governments to do so. You CAN fight city hall, especially when you're armed with false claims created and amplified by the Russian government and the professional Facebook conspiracy theorists. 

Opposition groups will increasingly vocalize against 5G in council meetings, planning commission meetings and elsewhere to ban or delay 5G rollouts.

In other words, anti-5G conspiracy theories must be taken seriously.

Other ways the pandemic is slowing 5G rollouts

While growing health concerns around 5G, fueled by conspiracy theories, will increasingly slow adoption, he coronavirus crisis is slowing 3G rollouts in more direct ways.

Supply chains are heavily disrupted. It's challenging to source equipment from China, especially.

Social distancing and policies allowing only "essential" work makes it harder or illegal to install equipment.

The social distancing measures are inducing a recession, which is drying up money for infrastructure investment.

Unemployment is curtailing tax revenues and stressing government budgets, which will incentivize those governments to push for higher auction prices for the right to use 5G frequencies.

Even with all these barriers, telecom CEOs claim that 5G rollout delays will be measured in months, not years. We'll see.

Private 5G gets a push from the pandemic

I see the biggest potential threat to 5G as public opposition based on health scares. The coronavirus crisis is adding fuel to that fire with new conspiracies, new opposition and cuts in the resources needed for the deployment of public 5G.

But private 5G is another story altogether.

Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications team estimates that more than 1,000 companies will be testing private 5G networks by the end of the year. While the coronavirus crisis prompted Deloitte to revise down prior predictions in almost all sectors of technology, including smartphones, they revised their private 5G predictions up.

The coronavirus pandemic has shocked large enterprises into an acknowledgement of the total dependency and necessity of high-performance networking. This is as true in manufacturing, services, telecommunications, automotive, robotics and other sectors as it is in healthcare, where the need for 5G has become glaringly obvious.

As we enter a hopefully short-lived recession, companies will need private 5G to accelerate their recoveries.

And so we find ourselves in a strange place. A global pandemic is shifting, how, where and when the Next Big Thing will be rolled out over the years to come.

Ubiquitous public 5G will come later than expected. Private enterprise 5G will come sooner.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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