from the is-there-nothing-it-can't-do dept
For several years the wireless industry has been hyping fifth-generation wireless (5G) as something utterly transformative. For this whole stretch we’ve been subjected to claims about how the wireless standard would revolutionize smart cities, transform the way we live, result in unbridled innovation, and even help us cure cancer (doctors have told me it won’t actually do that, if you’re interested).
But in reality, when 5G arrived, it was a bit underwhelming. At least in the United States, where speeds were dramatically lower than overseas deployments due to our failure to make middle-band spectrum widely available. And at prices that remain some of the highest in the developed world thanks in large part to consistent consolidation and regulatory capture.
Yeah, 5G is important. But not in any sexy way. It provides significantly faster speeds and lower latency over more reliable networks. Which is a good thing. But it’s more evolution than revolution. Consumers are generally happy with 4G speeds, and most consumer surveys suggest the number one thing they want is better coverage (which U.S. 5G has struggled to provide because middle band spectrum was scarce) and price cuts.
Hoping to excite consumers and regulators, wireless carriers have been desperate to come up with marketing that tries to frame 5G as utterly transformative. Usually this involves marketing that takes something you can already do over 4G or Wi-Fi, attaching 5G to it, and calling it a miracle. Like watching concerts (which you can already do) over 5G. Or getting a tattoo remotely (which you could technically already do over wired, Wi-Fi, or 4G broadband):
While 5G hype had slowed a bit in the last six months, the wireless industry jumped back into the fray with a sponsored report claiming that 5G will soon dramatically aid the fight against climate change. The industry study (which was quickly picked up and parroted by loyal telecom trade magazines) insists that 5G will quickly help the U.S. meet its climate goals (which most climate experts say were already woefully undercooked):
“In the United States, use cases on 5G networks are expected to enable the abatement of 330.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (MMtCO2e) across five industry verticals by 2025, which is an approximated 20% contribution towards US emission reduction targets at this time. This is the same effect as taking 71.9 million cars off the roads for one year or eliminating the annual emissions from 83 coal-fired power plants.”
The report effectively goes on to argue that the very act of embedding faster, lower-latency 5G chipsets into technology in fields and factories will improve overall efficiency and communication speed. Which is true, but the idea that you could actually take these improvements and measure their impact on overall emissions across a parade of different technologies and industries seems suspect at best. And even if you could, the idea that companies will exploit these efficiencies to reduce carbon emissions–as opposed to simply utilizing these improved efficiencies to improve profitability–seems like a fairly sizeable and generous assumption.
The whole report is based on the concept that being faster and more energy efficient will just naturally lead to lower carbon emissions, through very “science-ish” sounding paragraphs like this one:
“5G can reduce carbon emissions through a more efficient use of energy per bit of data transmitted. We call this an ?upstream? effect because of technical efficiency gains realized by the network itself. In addition to the upstream effect, widespread 5G adoption will bring a positive effect ?downstream,? or changes that result from behavior changes stemming from technologies enabled by 5G?s higher speed or device throughput.”
But just because you’ve affixed faster, lower latency chipsets onto hardware in a factory or field doesn’t naturally always equate to greater efficiency, either. The underlying equipment being used could still be inefficient, polluting, and problematic. And any gains in efficiency could still be offset by just a countless array of other factors at the company, be it dysfunctional organization or dated equipment. Like with most claims, 5G isn’t just some kind of magic lotion you spread on things resulting in everything somehow getting better.
The wireless industry certainly wants the public to believe 5G is magic to justify U.S. consumers paying some of the highest prices for wireless service in the developed world. But the hype serves another purpose: if you portray 5G as a near-mystical to the majority of societal problems, that increases the pressure on regulators to acquiesce to industry demands quickly and without much thought. If they don’t (like say by questioning the need for more subsidies, blocking a problematic megamerger, or supporting basic consumer protections), they’re enemies of progress and innovation.