Bloom, 5G networks — a critical perspective

5G is being positioned by certain actors as a catalyst for accumulation and dispossession. Graphic by ALAI.

5G networks – a critical perspective

by Peter Bloom — ALAI

In many countries around the region, we are beginning to hear about the need to install 5G networks if national economies are to remain competitive. While mobile network operators, at least in some rich countries, have already begun to install these next-generation networks, in Latin America the introduction of this technology is still some years away for most. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how 5G is being positioned by certain actors and its eventual role as a catalyst for accumulation and dispossession. But first we need to understand what it is.

The G in 5G means generation. 5G is the 5th generation of a series of wireless mobile technologies that have been around for the better part of 30 years. Historically, as the business potential of these technologies grew and became more consolidated, the telecommunications industry together with the UN body in charge of telecommunications, the ITU, began to create technical requirements and specifications every ten years, hence the successive generations of 2G, 3G, 4G and now 5G.

5G, as a technical proposal, is meant to do three things. Enhance the capacity (speed and throughput) of mobile broadband networks, massively increase the number and types of devices that can connect to the network, and increase the reliability and lower the latency of the network. From these three very ambitious technical proposals for 5G, it is clear that 5G technology is being positioned as a platform for industries and consumers alike—or in the lingo of the mobile telecom industry: “new verticals”. These verticals are entire business realms such as transportation, manufacturing and entertainment, for which 5G networks seek to become the underlying communications and support infrastructure, which presupposes important changes in the way business is done and life is lived.

Like previous generations of network technology, going back to the telegraph, 5G networks will likely impact (primarily) urban spaces and perhaps even transform social and economic relations. While this is not inevitable, it is certainly part of the plan of those behind the technology. What is certain is that the impact of this new communication technology on economies, societies, and spaces will be uneven – creating new forms of inequality and reinforcing some existing ones. One obvious consequence of the uneven geographic distribution of 5G networks, due to fundamental network architecture issues and deployment costs, is that it will widen the digital divide, leaving millions if not billions of people unable to participate equitably in an increasingly digital world. Beyond that, by using the three technical proposals of 5G as a framework for analysis, we can begin to make some predictions about how things will play out.

A 5G future

As mentioned, 5G is designed to be incredibly fast; ten to 50 times faster than existing 3G and 4G networks. This new, ultra-fast connectivity is meant primarily to enable the delivery of entertainment content. 5G promoters tout a “hyperconnected” society in which everyone (with a connection!) will be able to immerse themselves in video games and virtual reality environments through their mobile phones. But what is the effect on the social fabric when people retreat into their own digital worlds? We have already begun to see the negative effects of polarization and mass manipulation due to social media platforms, and these will seem like very blunt instruments compared to what is coming.

5G proposes to connect many more devices, not only phones and computers, but also sensors, terrestrial vehicles, industrial equipment, implanted medical devices, drones, cameras, and so on. For those of us concerned about the surveillance capacity and privacy issues related to current networks and Internet platforms, brace yourself. The fundamental underlying proposal of the supposed 4th Industrial Revolution that 5G networks are meant to help bring about is to connect everything with everything else while also making more things, including our bodies, more connectable. If the current way our personal data are dealt with is any indication of the future, this cyber-physical melding will be a disaster for privacy and anonymity, in addition to being incredibly vulnerable to hackers and manipulation by state and non-state actors.

As large Internet platforms like Google and Facebook have already proven the business model for the monetization of personal data, it is nearly inevitable that the companies selling “smart” devices in the future will also be collecting and monetizing the data that streams back to them. Soon, many more devices will be collecting much more personal information about you and that information will be collected, analyzed, packaged and sold by the dubious companies we already know about, plus a slew of new ones that likely have no idea how to handle personal information responsibly. Of further concern is the way connected personal devices are and will continue to become more “personal”, as in medical implants, sex toys, home sensors, etc.

Finally, the high reliability and low latency aspect of 5G, despite the fact that it does not exist yet, is an integral part of a speculative approach being made by Capital through investments in, for example, new transportation companies like Uber. At the moment, Uber and its ilk are using human drivers (and customers) to train their Artificial Intelligence with so much data that they will eventually be able to eliminate human drivers altogether. In fact, their business model and financial predictions demand they do so; however, this highly lucrative transformation cannot come about without the underlying network infrastructure to enable it. 5G proposes to enable “remote skill-set delivery”, making it possible for workers to telecommute from one labor regime while producing value in another. This obviously happens all the time in manufacturing and other “outsourced” industries, but this new arrangement would make it possible to outsource more types of jobs, first to poor people in poor countries, and then to robots or computers, which would eliminate those jobs altogether.

A final concern for Latin American countries, one that has been creating headlines recently, is the geopolitical wrangling around 5G that is happening between China and the West (primarily the USA). At stake is who will control the future of this technology and therefore be able to exert their will militarily and economically. The US recognizes that it is falling behind China in terms of its ability to be a world leader on 5G and is therefore rallying support from its allies to embargo and otherwise stymie China’s influence and potential reach. This essentially forces countries in Latin America to choose sides in a heightening technological Cold War, one in which they have little freedom to determine their own path and must instead decide with which global, imperial power to side.

The rise of 5G presents clear and profound challenges, both personal and collective. As networked technologies embed themselves further into our lives, those that are traditionally oppressed will feel the majority of the negative consequences of surveillance and job displacement. But all is not lost. Workers in the gig economy and even those working for large Internet companies are pushing back. Ethnic minorities and people of color, too. Regional, citizen and worker organization is the only way to mitigate the negative effects of the impending 4th Industrial Revolution. There is not a technological solution to the issues raised in this piece. These networks are almost certainly going to be installed and as a region and society we need to come up with coherent and collaborative strategies to confront them. Luckily we can take inspiration from the people on the front lines, those already feeling the brunt of the negative aspects of this system and organizing around stopping it.

Peter Bloom is the General Coordinator and Founder of Rhizomatica, an organization dedicated to supporting self-determination by and for communities with respect to communication technologies.


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