This article originally appeared on The Mercury News by Larry Magid.
There is a lot of excitement, and quite a bit of hype, over the upcoming 5G mobile networks. But there are also some issues that could dampen the rollout that’s just starting.
5G is shorthand for the fifth-generation model networks. It’s part of the evolution of a technology that began in the early 70s and has improved regularly. Its main advantages are very high speeds and very low latency.
A 5G connection would allow you to download a full-length movie in about 6 seconds — a fraction of the time it now takes. Low latency means that you can get an instantaneous response by reducing the delay before the data starts to flow. That can be important in gaming, autonomous driving and robotic surgery, when milliseconds count.
The cellular industry is jumping on the 5G bandwagon, and we’re already starting to see limited service rolling out in some communities. But to use 5G, you’ll probably need new phones, which are just starting to roll off the assembly lines from the likes of Samsung and Motorola with more expected in the coming years from Apple, Google, LG and other phone makers.
But – as good as it may be – 5G has potential downsides. One of them may be increased prices for both the phones and the service. Verizon is currently charging an additional $10 a month for its limited 5G service in Chicago and Minneapolis. The Samsung Galaxy S10 GE starts at $1,300. The LG V50 ThinQ starts at $1,000. Of course, prices can change over time and could go down as competition heats up.
Another issue is battery life. There are competing claims on this issue with some in the industry saying it will improve while others say that 5G will take an even bigger toll on battery life. Likely it will be harder on batteries at first but get better over time as the network rolls out, making the signals easier to come by. Although, writing in ComputerWorld, Mike Elgin commented that “because 5G connections suck more power, the chips that power 5G will be designed to favor 4G and kick into 5G mode only when the application demands high bandwidth.”
5G could also have an impact on network neutrality. TNW pointed out that European regulators are concerned that 5G could give network operators technological and perhaps social excuses to discriminate in favor of certain types of traffic. One of 5G’s advantages is “network slicing” which allows carriers to divide up the signals into separate “logical networks” to carry different types of traffic. Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson, said that this technology will provide “Greater elasticity, robustness, secure and stable operations through the compartmentalization of the network,” and allow for “customizable slices, each optimized for the needs of the services — or segment cluster they are defined to serve.” That may be great from a technology standpoint, but it means that, similar to toll roads or HOV lanes on California freeways, the network itself will have different lanes for different types of traffic, making it not only easier but more justifiable to discriminate. That will start, no doubt, by favoring life-saving or mission-critical applications like telemedicine and autonomous driving but could easily extend to commercial advantages like favoring traffic from the highest bidder.
In 2017, software developer Bob Frankston (co-author of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program), blogged that “The problem (with 5G) is not with any particular technical detail but rather the conflict between the tradition of network providers trying to predetermine requirements and the idea of creating opportunity for what we can’t anticipate.”
Frankston argues against favoring specific types of applications not only on issues of neutrality but because of their impact on innovation. Imagine if the electric company had a specific type of current for conventional ovens that doesn’t work with microwaves or convection ovens. “This attempt to build special purpose solutions shows a failure to understand the powerful ideas that have made the Internet what it is. Approaches such as this create conflicts between the various stakeholders defining functions in the network.”
One area that I’ve been reluctant to cover is the possible health affects of 5G. I’m reluctant because health effects of cellular systems, other radio technologies and even electric wires are often exaggerated and widely misunderstood. But, as Mike Elgin pointed out in that ComputerWorld article, “5G is different. The technology comes with a requirement that towers be far greater in number and far closer to users.” Neither Elgin nor I argue that 5G is dangerous, but there is widespread concern and some disagreement among scientists. Mill Valley has banned 5G deployment pending further research while the State of New Hampshire has passed a bill to establish a “commission to study the environmental and health effects of evolving 5G technology.”
In response to concerns from members of Congress, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote that his agency “relies on the expertise of health and safety agencies and organizations with respect to appropriate levels of RF exposure. Our current RF exposure limits incorporate recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other federal health and safety agencies” He added that the agency places a “high priority on the safety of wireless services and devices.”
Having said all this, I have to admit that I’m still excited about 5G. New technologies can create new opportunities. And, although there will always be naysayers, there are many who see great potential in 5G. I’m looking forward to the rollout, but I think it’s important to do so with our eyes wide open, a willingness to address any possible downsides.and a willingness to back away from any technologies that prove to be dangerous.