Monday, February 04, 2019

Do we even need 5G technology?

As Canadian (and presumably everyone else's) telecommunications companies agonize over whether or not to use Huawei's 5G network technology (and whether their government will even let them), there are some questions that are not even being asked.
As I have discussed before, Huawei is not just another company, it is effectively an arm of the Chinese government, and many countries are rightly wary of letting the company in to manage their telecommunications systems. Also, thanks to the Americans, Canada is now embroiled in a nasty war of words, morals and legalities with China, and with Huawei in particular. Given the way this is looking right now, Canadian telco companies Rogers, BCE and Telus would probably be wise to avoid striking any deals with Huawei in the near future. Some of them have been quick to point out that that will probably cost them - and their subscribers - a pretty penny, but notably BCE (Bell) say that they would be quite comfortable using a different supplier, and see no reason why that would lead to higher consumer bills.
Anyway, my point is - the elephant in the room - do we we even need 5G networks? Just because a technology exists doesn't necessarily mean that we should pump billions of dollars into acquiring it, although new technology tends to have a kind of self-fulfilling momentum to it these days.
5G (fifth generation telecommunications network technology) promises many things, mainly higher speeds and lower latency (delay) than the current 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks that most of us use. Personally, I really don't need faster speeds. Nothing I use my cellphone for has any appreciable delay or frustration. I don't engage in online gaming, and I don't download complete movies while I am sitting on the bus. 5G is also being touted as essential for the development of autonomous cars and fleets of drones, neither of which I particularly want to see, and neither of which I feel are ready to be unleashed on an unsuspsecting public. And I suspect that many, if not most, other users feel much the same way. Also, 4G networks are much faster than they were even just a couple of years ago, and they are improving all the time (the idea of Gigabit LTE has already been mooted - Long Term Evolution, right?).
And, bear in mind, 5G tech is not without it's drawbacks. Perhaps the main one is that the ultra-short wave, high-frequency spectrum that 5G uses means that the waves do not travel very far at all, and are easily blocked by buildings, trees, traffic signs, etc (and presumably by someone with criminal intentions). So, instead of those large, ugly (but relatively few) cell towers we currently see, 5G would require lots and lots of smaller antennas. And, in order to achieve the coverage we have come to expect, I mean "lots" - on houses, telegraph poles, traffic lights, street signs, buses, you name it, probably every 150m in built-up areas. And quite how that would work in rural areas, I'm not sure (and have not seen any solutions suggested). And who knows whether different network providers will use compatible system or not?
Something else that has not received anything like enough attention is the possible health effects of the higher frequency radiation emitted by 5G systems. Arguably, there is very little such research on the health effects of current network systems (the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies low- and high-frequency electromagnetic radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans"), but there is essentially none at all on 5G, and apparently none planned, although some activists like US Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal is attempting to raise the profile of the issue. 
Furthermore, 5G networks would require 5G phones (and vice versa). Your current phone can not just be "switched over" to 5G. It uses a whole different system, and so, yes, you will need a new phone (and a new internet-enabled thermostat, car, smart meter, etc, etc). So, as well as paying extra for your provider's upgrades, you get to pay more for your own hardware too.
Not sounding quite so attractive now, eh? We should put some serious thought into whether we even need to engage Huawei (or anyone else) in upgrading our cell networks. We could just let LTE evolve.

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