5G – the generation of too much?

Translated by Claudia Oppong Peprah

Some think it is faster with higher performance others consider it more dangerous and even more devastating for the environment: 5G. However, despite all the technological progress 5G remains an object of political conflict. As a symbol of capability and power it is the cause of conflict between two archrivals: China and USA. But how can a network that is feeding our telephone lines we use to like postings on Instagram and watch films on Netflix be source of technological conflict? Let’s try to figure out the issues related to 5G.

Technology fans are already anticipating 5G, the fifth-generation mobile communication network. Faster downloads, better data quality, or even more stable connection, characteristics attributed to this prospective technological advance are plenty[1]. Though, there are many critics. Among them environmentalists who refer to the implementation of new data centers[2]. While processing our data this “energy guzzling” centers are polluting an already very vulnerable planet. Politicians can do nothing about it and rather see it as a new object of power. What is it all about? We will explore the world of 5G today.

What is 5G?

5G represents the future but is currently still based on 4G. In its early days it factually uses the waves and frequencies of its “elder brother”: 5G is non-standalone, it does not function on its own. Once it is developed and ready to use we will have an autonomous stand-alone 5G network[3].

There are numerous advantages in this new technology. Whereas 4G has latency – the time between emission and reception of data – of approx. 10 to 40 ms, 5G reduces the latent period which now amounts to just 1 ms. Due to this, 5G allows for more devices to be connected to the same network. Movie lovers will see downloads become a hundredfold faster. You can download a 2h-film in only 10 seconds compared to the 7 minutes it took during 4G[4]. Optimists even see in 5G a possibility to finally be able to use driverless cars[5].

Progress for health and planet?

It is evident that 5G is, same as its predecessors, emitting electromagnetic waves, which are said to be harmful to our health. Is there another reality? According to a report, published 1st September 2020 by the General Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development (CGEDD) and the General Economic Council (CGE) supported by the General Inspectorate of Social Affairs (IGAS) and the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF), there isn’t any impact of the waves being noted. The report reads as follows:

Taking into account the numerous studies published since the 1950s concerning the effects of radio frequency waves on health in France and the entire world, national and international health agencies agree that there are no harmful consequences in short term[…]. Potential long term effects, carcinogenic or not, are difficult to proof and are at this stage, according to the same agencies, mainly based on facts that have no scientific evidence. […] “.[6]

As far as our health is concerned, all risks seem to be dismissed but for the environment the situation is much different. Ericsson, a large Swedish telecommunications company, acknowledged the risks of 5G in a report published in 2020, saying:

If 5G is deployed as quickly as 3G and 4G we are close to a dramatically sharp increase of energy consumption. This will be a big issue to address. Some network operators in the telecommunications sector have estimated that power consumption will double […]. This is no longer sustainable in a financial and environmental view”.[7]

5G has an impact on the environment in many different ways. First of all, 5G will consume more energy increasing the number of data centers. These centers serve for data handling and storing. In order to get them up and running you need an internet connection, a power source and a cooling system which is in operation non-stop. Therefore these centers are mere “energy guzzlers”. A data center with 2.000 servers could easily consume the same amount of electricity a village with 15.000 inhabitants does[8]. 5G also entails the fabrication of new equipment using “grey energy” to exploit the necessary materials. Actually, 47% of greenhouse gas caused by digitization is ascribed to consumer devices[9].

5G – synonymous for economic power?

China and USA are the two biggest blocs of economic power in the world. They confront each other literally with any project promising power, including 5G. While deployed in the USA already since 2019 its progression keeps causing conflicts with China over and over again[10]. Who knows how to make the most of it will dominate the world; and will also be capable of implementing leading-edge technology with presently innovative and expensive equipment. However, its utilization will come at the cost of huge financial consequences[11].

The two countries have only one concern: being first to deploy 5G at national level. This seems to be complicated in USA, a country 150 times larger than France and 10 times larger than China, its main competitor[12]. At the moment China is ahead and its objective is to see 5G distributed throughout the country by end of 2020[13].

All in all, 5G brings forward the key issues of the century: ecology, technology, and economy. Although health risks seem negligible, our planet runs into a total depletion of its resources. From a technological perspective, the dream of every sci-fi fan could come true with objects becoming more and more independent. And economically speaking, 5G reflects the cold war between China and USA more than ever before. In fact the two countries strive for imperialistic power which becomes increasingly difficult to obtain in our liberal world.


[1] https://www.bbc.com/afrique/monde-50223402

[2] https://www.nouvelobs.com/debat/20191215.OBS22357/la-5g-est-elle-anti-ecolo.html

[3] https://labo.fnac.com/guide/5g-fonctionnement-usages-deploiement-point-reseau-de-demain/

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/03/business/what-is-5g/index.html

[5] https://www.salon.com/2020/08/15/5g-is-the-first-stage-of-a-tech-war-between-the-us-and-china_partner/

[6] http://www.cgedd.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/013456-01_rapport_cle245ea5.pdf

[7] https://www.ericsson.com/493e7e/assets/local/about-ericsson/sustainability-and-corporate-responsibility/documents/2020/breaking-the-energy-curve-report.pdf

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y923bPwAot0

[9] https://www.liberation.fr/checknews/2020/07/17/la-5g-est-elle-extremement-consommatrice-d-energie-comme-l-affirme-julien-bayou_1793102

[10] https://siecledigital.fr/2019/06/03/la-5g-continue-de-progresser-aux-etats-unis/

[11] https://www.pourleco.com/en-vrai/le-futur-aujourdhui/la-5g-une-revolution-pour-leconomie-mondiale

[12] https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chine

[13] https://www.challenges.fr/high-tech/ericsson-depasse-les-attentes-au-3eme-trimestre-grace-au-deploiement-de-la-5g-en-chine_733560

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