Seeing the Forest Through the Trees of 5G

Instead of focusing on the latest telecom advert promising faster speeds, we need to focus the discussion on 5G around the politics of data.

By Xische Editorial, February 19, 2019

Source: Blackspring/ Shutterstock

Source: Blackspring/Shutterstock

The United Kingdom added an interesting layer to the saga over global 5G infrastructure this week. British intelligence officials told reporters from the Financial Times that the UK was able to “mitigate the risk from using Huawei equipment in 5G networks.” This admission was a stinging rebuke for the United States, which has spent much of the last year convincing allies that Chinese technology company Huawei posed a national security risk to 5G networks due to their unclear links with the Chinese government.

For the past year, the race between the United States and China to establish viable 5G networks has been the subject of intense speculation and commentary. Sadly, it has mostly been described in military terms as tension between the two superpowers intensifies. Focusing on the confrontational aspects of 5G implementation, however,  is gravely detrimental for our general understanding of the technology and the medium- and long-term challenges it poses for society.

Most people think 5G is only about data speeds and the ability to download movies on smartphones over cellular connections. While faster speeds are a major part of the technology, there is much more at play. Bandwidth for 5G connections is expected to be up to 20 gigabytes per second. That amount of raw speed will allow for much more advanced virtual and augmented reality systems as well as a slew of other connected technologies such as driverless cars.

As a result of the speed upgrades, 5G could supplant traditional wired internet connections while actually increasing the number of devices connected to the internet. With so many more devices in operation collecting raw data, everything from artificial intelligence to smart city initiatives would experience incredible jumps forward. With any new technology, these jumps forward would open new vulnerabilities and the risk of data theft becomes more acute.

Therein lies the tension in our current conservation concerning 5G. Instead of focusing on the latest telecom advert promising faster speeds, we need to hone the discussion around the politics of data. This is a multi-fascinated conversation that doesn’t have a clear starting or ending point. It is just part of our contemporary existence.

The collection, ownership, and use of data will accelerate when 5G networks come online. Progressive regulation that protects individual users while ensuring that innovation can take place should similarly move forward in lockstep. It is simply too easy to forget that the leaders of the data revolution are private companies that don’t have any mandate to operate in the public interest beyond keeping their shareholders happy. As these titans grow exponentially with the 5G revolution, the need for smart regulation is compounded.

Another facet of the debate concerns access to data. Some have argued that 5G is integral to the evolution of smart cities because faster data speeds will enable more devices and generate more data that can be used to hone smart city services. Again, lost in this line of thought about speed is access. With 5G technology, more people will able to access lightning fast connections. Barriers that exist to fast internet today, such as price or availability of fiber optic lines, wouldn’t be barriers in the same way when 5G infrastructure is fully in place. Therefore, smart cities using 5G technology will be able to deliver services to many more people, which in turn will have a profound leveling effect.

According to Light Reading, a trade publication, 5G could facilitate coverage density 100 times greater than current standards with the ability to support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer. That is truly remarkable. Put in their words, “5G will deliver the massive improvements in speed, throughput, device deployment, traffic capacity, latency and spectrum efficiency required by the smart city ecosystem.”

The classic economics aphorism that “a rising tide lifts all boats” fits nicely into the debate here. Yes, the technology will deliver faster speeds but the real boost will come from the knock-on effects that faster speeds bring to the current technology landscape. The internet will be more equitable as more people gain access. Cities will be able to build better smart infrastructure and service delivery will improve. But these developments are contingent on our ability to carve out the right regulatory climate and necessary consumer safeguards before the first 5G tower is operational.

Our intense focus on the 5G race between the United States and China is stifling critical internal conversations about how the technology’s effects will be handled on the global, national, and local level. We can use the promise of this future leap to consider the challenges we face today. In this regard, 5G is not just about fast data but the changing nature of our relationship with technology and the complex politics of data. The future we want can be carved out today.