Why just about everyone is wrong about 5G

The next generation of mobile broadband will neither solve all our problems nor cause new ones.

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Have you heard the one about 5G?

Wait, which one?

You know. The one about 5G where it replaces 4G and makes all our phones amazingly fast all the time? Or the one where the FCC is going to finally deliver ultrafast internet to rural communities using 5G? Or maybe you live in shady Facebook groups, and have heard the one about how 5G is making everyone sick?

Just about every curious reader of current events has heard all these beliefs about 5G. Unfortunately, none of them are true. Let's take a look at each belief:

1. Belief: As soon as I get a 5G phone, I'm done with 4G


Everyone is excited about Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S20 5G and Huawei Mate 40Pro in part because they all support 5G.

But 5G support probably won't change anything noticeable for buyers of these phones.

5G operates at higher frequencies, which necessitates a larger number of base stations closer together and nearer to the user. (This is leading to the first "gold rush" after effect of 5G: a boom in the leasing of rooftops by building owners.)

5G is also more easily blocked by buildings, cars, trees and people than slower, older technologies. 5G is slowed down even by rain. Making matters worse, 5G performance drops off quickly as you move away from the base station. The vast majority of the range of a 5G base station gets only a fraction of the performance advertised.

So in order to enjoy 5G coverage as you're moving around in your life, you'll need to be in a big city in a neighborhood with saturation coverage, staying close to, and maintaining a direct line of sight to, the base stations in good weather. Good luck!

5G needs a lot of power from the battery, so smartphones only kick into 5G mode under duress -- when the user is demanding fast video, for example. Much of the innovation in 5G will be about fast switching back to 4G whenever possible. If you happen to be in a 5G zone, you'll be able to download video faster. For almost everything else, you'll be using 4G.

In other words, actual 5G coverage is rare, and you probably won't use it most of the time anyway. It's not going to change the experience of using a smartphone.

2. Belief: 5G will solve the digital divide between urban and rural areas


The FCC announced recently it will spend billions of dollars to fund 5G wireless broadband expansion across rural America over the next ten years. The fine print specifies additional development of expanding 4G service as well, with a focus on tribal lands and help for precision agriculture.

America is big, and rural areas are sparsely populated, making investment in broadband a money-losing proposition for carriers. The FCC is trying to use carrots and sticks to bring fast urban wireless to farmers who grow carrots in the sticks -- but it's a bad idea.

That's true of fiber. But it's also true of 5G. Some estimates say that deploying 5G for most of America's rural residents would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And that makes sense. A wireless technology that requires fairly close proximity to the user makes zero sense in sparsely populated areas. The best-case scenario is that cities and maybe medium size towns in rural areas might eventually get some 5G. But that's not going to do it for people in the boonies.

Even covering one large farm with enough 5G for high-tech tractors to use would cost a fortune.

As next-generation satellite services like SpaceX's Starlink come online, the idea of 5G for rural areas will look even more absurd.

So no, 5G is not going to solve the digital divide problem between urban and rural areas.

3. Belief: 5G is dangerous and makes people sick


Before the Spring of this year, 5G "radiation" was considered a direct threat to human health by the same crowd who protested WiFi, Bluetooth and all the Gs that came before 5G -- 2G, 3G and 4G. But the Covid-19 pandemic launched 5G craziness into the stratosphere.

There is a large number of variations on this theme, but the two main false believes are that 1) Covid-19 doesn't exist, but is instead a hoax to cover for sickness caused by 5G towers; and 2) Covid-19 is real but is caused by or spread by 5G towers. State-sponsored actors like the Russian government are also working to spread misinformation about 5G externally while promoting its benefits internally in Russia.

Links between 5G and the coronavirus are not worth talking about. But the long-term risk by ubiquitous 5G has not been fully studied. Exposure to lower-frequency radio waves has been looked at and found to pose no risk to human health. Logic suggests that because 5G's higher frequency waves are unable to penetrate the human body it should pose no risk at all. In general, there's no rational reason at present to believe that 5G threatens human health.

But fears about 5G do pose a risk to the future of 5G.

In an age of internet-amplified disinformation and conspiracy theory, 5G has become the subject of a wide range of false stories, leading to an underground movement (especially in Europe) to seek out and destroy 5G equipment.

In the UK alone, some 80 cell phone towers have been destroyed, usually with fire.

In a recent letter to the European Commission, 15 countries --Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and Sweden --  claimed local rises in the "anti-5G movement" that threaten the ability for the EU to reach its 5G rollout goals. Some 140 masts have been destroyed across Europe.

Troublingly, acts of vandalism against 5G equipment -- and threats against mobile broadband technicians and support people in the field -- are very much on the rise.

But even civil protests are taking their toll. Concerned citizens storming city council meetings are delaying projects, even in places like Silicon Valley.

So the cause of ubiquitous 5G is facing a phalanx of opposition, from concerned citizens to conspiracy theorists to the Russian disinformation industrial complex.

This is all bad news for the future of 5G. Smartphone users and people in the countryside are slowly finding out that 5G won't change their lives. But the conspiracy theorists will never find out that 5G won't harm their health.

There are many people who believe that public 5G will totally transform the world. And those people are wrong.

There are other people who believe that private, internal 5G will totally transform the enterprise for the better. And those people are right.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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