Let us no longer focus on health, but rather on three other facets of 5G: who stands to profit from it, how is it going to affect our society and whether a country as small as Malta needs a 5G infrastructure at all.
by Michele Kipiel
Collage by the IotL Magazine
As all major mobile operators in the EU slowly begin rolling out their speedy 5G networks, public opinion on the continent is once again caught in the well-known deadlock already seen during previous debates around controversial technologies. Following in that tradition people are now choosing their side, either for or against, based on a single facet of the 5G problem: the supposed risks posed by high energy millimeter waves to human health.
Now, I won’t go as far as suggesting such polarisation is supported or induced in any way by those corporate parties interested in the 5G business, but it sure serves their needs well. Once people’s attention is focused on a matter that’s essentially unsolvable in a practical timeframe (it might take decades of field research to assess the impact of 5G on human health), the parties interested in profiting off 5G networks can comfortably plan their future actions. Actions that will be invariably carried out in the name of the unstoppable progress.
So what can we do? Let’s put health concerns aside for a moment and take a step back.
“Progress” is sort of a magical formula under capitalism: it means nothing, but it has the power to move mountains. Once a staple of academic discourse in Western philosophy, the word “progress” was made into a sacred social principle during the XIX century by thinkers like Auguste Comte, whose motto “l’amour pour principe, l’ordre pour base, et le progrès pour but” can be regarded as the battle cry of positivism.
The word itself comes from the latin progredior, “to move forward”, which seems like a very good idea until one realises that the act of moving forward, by itself, carries no information on direction and speed, nor it provides any details as to where forward actually is on the map. Capitalist propaganda quickly appropriated the term and wielded it as hammer to squash all those who dared oppose the demands of the élite. So aggressive was the use of this newfound weapon that, over the past two centuries, Western audiences developed an almost pavlovian reaction to it: “if it’s progress, it must be good”.
Once people’s attention is focused on a matter that’s essentially unsolvable in a practical timeframe, the parties interested in profiting off 5G networks can comfortably plan their future actions.
Progress, in the context of the current 5G rollout, means new developments, new concessions, new tax breaks and “innovation” subsidies, all of which will be funded in some way or another using public money. It might not look like it, but 5G is a major political topic. And yet, as with nuclear power and GMOs, a solid assesment of 5G in terms of political and economical relevance is entirely missing from public discourse so far. With some luck, I intend to trigger such debate by suggesting we dramatically shift our point of view. Let us no longer focus on health, but rather on three other facets of 5G: who stands to profit from it, how is it going to affect our society and whether a country as small as Malta needs a 5G infrastructure at all.
Public Cost, Private Profit. Business as Usual
The European Union estimates the combined worldwide revenue of all 5G operators at €225 billion annually by 2025. An impressive figure in the face of the comparatively tiny expenses mobile operators are sustaining to acquire 5G licenses. Germany, the largest country and strongest economy in the EU, only managed to rake in €6.55 billion from four operators—a meagre €1.63 billion each – during this year’s auction of 5G licences. One might object that licence auctions are just one part of the equation, the other being an increased market for goods and services that will drive consumption and, therefore, tax revenue. Not quite.
In a recently published report, researchers Colin Blackman and Simon Forge provide us with a sobering reality check: “despite the hype around 5G, the benefits in terms of economic stimulation from new services and products in GDP and employment will not be seen in any country for some time. There is a growing recognition, especially in Asia, that 5G will need much more time to perfect before comprehensive rollout, perhaps with a ten-year timeframe”. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to assess the deep disproportion between current costs and expected future benefits for mobile operators investing in 5G licenses.
Adding insult to injury, 5G networks are also likely to degrade already existing public utility services like satellite-based weather forecasts, making it hard or even impossible to determine water vapour concentration in the atmosphere due to wavelength interference. Such degradation might prove fatal for many in those regions of the world where accurate storm forecasting is a vital public service. Last but not least, we should not forget 5G hardware is mostly produced by Chinese manufacturers, which means massive streams of revenue will be channelled away from the European economy and towards the Far East. Not only this is likely to impact the already struggling European tech scene, but it also has implications on the political, legal and ethical levels.
5G networks are also likely to degrade already existing public utility services like satellite-based weather forecasts, making it hard or even impossible to determine water vapour concentration in the atmosphere due to wavelength interference.
A problem clearly highlighted in a recent report published by the European Parliment: “(…) since trust in equipment vendors depends heavily on the legal and regulatory system of the jurisdiction in which they operate and its extraterritorial application to them, it is not just about trusting Huawei or ZTE but about trusting China’s one-party regime. (…) Chinese companies and individuals are obliged under penal sanctions to cooperate in intelligence gathering under the Chinese National Intelligence Law”. As if having to trust the Chinese Communist Party wasn’t troubling enough, the recent discovery of a major flaw in the 5G encription protocol makes reliance on hardware produced in an authoritarian regime look even less appealing.
Following the most classic of capitalist schemes, the costs of 5G will therefore be socialised, in the form of increased radio pollution, insignificant GDP increase, potentially catastrophic delays in weather forecats and a hightened risk of foreign interference; while a small cohort of corporate entities will reap huge profits from both consumer and industrial applications of 5G. We cannot passively accept this state of affairs.
Yes, Streaming Is Cool, but Have You Tried Missiles?
According to the marketing material distributed by operators worldwide, 5G will revolutionise our society in ways we can’t even begin imagining. If you choose to believe the hype, 5G “will lead to a whole new Internet of Things, where everything from toasters to dog collars to dialysis pumps to running shoes will be connected. Remote robotic surgery will be routine, the military will develop hypersonic weapons, and autonomous vehicles will cruise safely along smart highways”, Sue Halpern from the New Yorker informs us. Let’s quickly unpack these claims.
The Internet Of Things, or IoT, is one of Silicon Valley’s favourite buzzwords, and for a very good reason. As explained in our series on surveillance capitalism, companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple run on a business model that revolves around the relentless collection of presonal details that are fed to algorithms and transformed into frigtheningly accurate predictions about our behaviour. And what’s better than always-on, always-connected, personal “smart devices” to extract such precious data?
5G will enable surveillance companies to enact strategies of data gathering and behavioural control that are unthinkable using current technology alone. The effects of surveillance capitalism on political discourse are already plain for everyone to see—Trump’s controversial election, the surge of right-wing populism worldwide, the Brexit, to name a few- so if there’s one thing we really don’t need, it’s 5G-enabled surveillance on steroids. Corporate use of 5G is only half the story, though.
5G will enable surveillance companies to enact strategies of data gathering and behavioural control that are unthinkable using current technology alone.
Halpern’s almost casual mention of hypersonic weapons, currently under active development in Russia, China, the US and France, sheds a light on 5G applications far more troubling than any connected toaster will ever be. Hypersonic projectiles are expected to be the “killer application” (pun intended) of the military 5G rollout effort: travelling as fast as five times the speed of sound, these weapons will prove extremely hard to detect and counter using current technology. 5G network speeds are expected to become a vital asset in a scenario where “an aircraft carrier, a military base, or even a city, is going to have less than a minute to react to an incoming hypersonic missile”.
Needless to say, an international moratorium on hypersonic weapons would be much safer and cost effective in preventing hypersonic strikes than any 5G network will ever be, but the military-industrial complex obviously thinks otherwise. As if the threat of missiles travelling a mile per second wasn’t enough, the military importance of 5G connectivity in a war scenario will also mean an increased risk of strikes affecting civilian structures, given how much 5G relies on a diffuse network of “microcells” installed on roofs or masts to work properly. We should be deeply concerned by any attempt to disguise an infrastructure with such ample surveillance and military potential as a “harmless upgrade” to the already existing and perfectly functional mobile networks we use and enjoy everyday.
5G? What for?
Let’s take another step back and look at a map of Europe. The Maltese Islands cover a total area of 316 square kilometers. That’s less than a hundredth of Catalonia’s extension, which clocks in at 32,108 square kilometers. What does this excercise in geography have to do with 5G in Malta, you might ask. The answer is simple: Catalonia is home to the largest citizen-owned public WiFi network in Europe and possibly in the world, Guifi.net. Faced with a lack of broadband access in rural areas, the citizens of Osona county begun developing their own network in 2004 using only off-the-shelf hardware, open-source software and their ingenuity.
Woudn’t it be much better if we took a page out of Guifi’s book and tried implementing a public, cooperatively-owned, nationwide WiFi network that’s cheap, decentralised, inclusive and harmless?
Fifteen years after the first node was installed, Guifi is today a sprawling network made of 35.715 active nodes serving communities living along the Catalan coastline, the Basque region and within Madrid itself, with 19.500 more nodes already planned. Not only is Guifi a massive, distributed network, it is also a non-profit, commons-based project. Taking profit out of the equation allows Guifi to focus on what truly matters: accessibilty, sustainability, democratic control and community. The benefits of the Guifi network are vast, and include better access to the internet, more quality jobs and more money retained in the communities, diminished likeliness of service disruption and lower prices for end users.
Take a minute to imagine what we could achieve on a territory one hundred times smaller than Catalonia, with no mountains nor natural obstacles, in a country that has a longstanding tradition of cooperative ownership and a cooperative-friendly legal framework. Do we really need a new, expensive, centralised, inherently exclusive and potentially dangerous 5G network in Malta? Woudn’t it be much better if we took a page out of Guifi’s book and tried implementing a public, cooperatively-owned, nationwide WiFi network that’s cheap, decentralised, inclusive and harmless?
So what about our health? Should we disregard the warning issued by 180 scientists asking to halt 5G rollout until the impact of millimeter waves on human health is fully understood? Of course not. Preventing harm from untested technology is more important than ever in the age of uncheked Silicon Valley power, but focusing on health alone puts us in a very uncomfortable position, as it places the burden of proof squarely on our own shouldres. And we don’t always have the resources nor the time to carry that burden successfully.
What we need in the battle against hastly implemented development plans like 5G, are strong, actionable arguments that shift the burden of proof away from us and place it on the interested parties. We can’t wait decades for the science to be in if we want to stand a chance against opponents who can outspend us 100 to 1 in the media and blast their propaganda until all opposing voices are silenced and their business is safe.
Michele Kipiel stands for Open Source, Videogames, Philosophy, Cooperatives, P2P, History, Sci-Fi, RPGs, Socialism, Memes, Anarchy. Not necessarily in that order.