5G is already operational in countries such as China and South Korea, and is increasingly anticipated in Europe. This new technology is the fifth generation of wireless communication and is the successor to the current 4G. Developed to handle the growing volume of data and modern digital business, 5G will enable greater exchange and storage capacities. In order to do this, this technology will require a hitherto unheard-of millimeter wave bandwidth in the range of 30 to 300 GHz.
In France, the first offers should be launched by the end of the year if current conditions regarding COVID-19 still permit it.
5G technology has been a highly controversial subject for several years now and it is far from being unanimously accepted. The reason for this, aside from the digital opportunities 5G offers, is that it also raises fears of an unprecedented environmental disaster on a planetary scale.
“To dare; that is the price of progress,” said Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. But at what price?
A considerable increase in the number of relay antennas
The existing 4G infrastructure is based on mobile networks that use antennas to broadcast signals uniformly in all directions. The implementation of 5G in France will take place gradually between 2020 and 2025, and will involve substantial investment. It will be done using the current infrastructure but will also require smart antennas as well as other small antennas that will be placed directly inside buildings and in street furniture.
Consequently, this technology will require a much more massive network of antennas at the national level with an average of 30% more sites, particularly in peri-urban areas, in order to equal the coverage offered by 4G. And it will take three times as many antennas in rural areas to be able to provide broadband service of at least 8 megabits per second.
In the long term, the aim is to allow operation over several frequency bands in order to provide about 50 times the current 4G speed by means of centimetric waves, first at 3.5 GHz and then millimeter waves when the 26 GHz band frequencies are used.
These waves will therefore ensure greater connectivity and faster performance (transmission time divided by 10) of the connected objects that are becoming increasingly numerous in our homes and also in our businesses.
In France, an initial deployment is expected in a number of major cities by the end of the year and then broader coverage is planned for two-thirds of the population by 2026, with industrial areas being the priority target.
In a digital era and a hyper-connected world, it seems difficult to resist such efficiency, but the result is not going to be very good for the environment.
An unprecedented environmental disaster
The other side of the 5G technology coin is indeed not very good for the planet.The hidden side of digital technology carries with it an invisible form of pollution that is difficult to control, and the number of Internet users continues to grow and they are increasingly demanding in terms of their consumption.
Frédéric Bordage, a French digital specialist and founder of the Green IT.fr website notes that, “The more bandwidth we have, the more we consume […] It’s like when we switched from wells to running water, the per capita water consumption skyrocketed, and no one was as careful as they had been before about not wasting water.” It’s the same today with digital technology, which is proving to be fundamentally damaging to the environment, if we take into account the astronomical quantities of materials required to build the hundreds of millions of antennas needed for the operation of 5G. And above all, add to that the several billion connected objects whose manufacture contributes to the depletion of non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels and minerals, which all too often extracted by children working in inhuman conditions.
There’s another cause for concern in this crazy technological race: in a few years, billions of connected devices will become an equivalent amount of waste (most of which is not recyclable), since these devices will quickly become obsolete because of their incompatibility with 5G. These devices will become “outdated” and hundreds of billions of new devices will have to be produced to replace them. This will only worsen the environmental impact of the operation, which is already very severe, namely, the depletion of non-renewable resources, the pollution of water, the destruction of soil caused by the extraction of minerals and a greater level of greenhouse gas emissions.
The disproportionate carbon footprint of excessive consumption
The digital industry, which generates a high level of greenhouse gas emissions, is one of the most polluting industries, from the extraction of raw materials used to manufacture electronic equipment, to its use and recycling at the end of its life. According to an October 2018 report by The Shift Project, digital technology currently emits 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and its energy consumption is increasing by 9% per year. With the advent of 5G, the energy consumption of mobile operators could increase by a factor of 2.5 to 3 over the next five years, which represents a 2% increase in electricity consumption in France alone.
This digital pollution, now called e-pollution, is helping to make the Internet the third largest polluter after China and the United States, but it could reach the top of the list by 2030 if users make no effort to monitor their consumption. Everyday actions that seem trivial, such as watching a movie on Netflix, playing a video game on your smartphone or working via videoconferencing, have a huge impact on the planet.
Along with the rise of connected objects (from toothbrushes, to washing machines, light bulbs and even socks, yes, there is such a thing), there is a corresponding increase in wave emissions, the use of resources and the overall carbon footprint.
Finally, by wanting greater speed, less latency and more network capacity, users may prefer mobile networks over fixed networks, which will place greater demands on relay antennas, which consume much more energy than wire-based infrastructures.
As you will have understood, 5G holds unpleasant surprises for the planet, which would be better off without it, but with 6G already under development and due for release in about ten years, with data rates expressed in terabits and 7G planned for the 2040s, unfortunately, the planet will continue to be mistreated for years to come. If there is no real awareness of these issues, either on the part of industries (starting with telephone manufacturers) or consumers, we’re not out of the woods yet.