In Essays, Innovation

There’s pushback to the rollout of 5G infrastructure across America because it seems too fast, ugly, and potentially dangerous, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. They’re all legit issues.

That rollout has been put on steroids, thanks to the FCC’s requirement that local governments approve new 5G antennas within a few months and then charge only so much for the required real estate. Almost 100 locations have joined in a lawsuit claiming that the directive robs them of their rightful authority to regulate change in their communities. Telecos are pushing back and suing municipalities claiming they’re being charged too much for deploying 5G towers.

What’s the rush?

It’s not clear. We’re in a race with China, according to the President. Another explanation is that it’s intended to enrich telcom providers.

What’s certain is that the rollout of 5G infrastructure has been granted special dispensation, according to a former FCC Chairman quoted in the Journal story:

“What the wireless guys are asking is for cities to treat them totally different than every other entity asking for construction permits. I think it will backfire because, in the fullness of time, instead of a cooperative relationship you’ll get a hostile relationship.”

It’s also certain that the infrastructure can be ugly. “Small” towers aren’t necessarily so small (one recent court ruling found that they’re big enough to impact the environment and potentially infringe on historic-preservation rules), and networks need to install vastly larger numbers of towers to provide coverage.

And then there’s the dangerous part.

The Journal pooh-poohs what it calls “specious safety concerns” over 5G’s potential impacts on health, contrasting the WHO’s and FCC’s conclusions that there’s nothing to worry about with one zealot’s belief that humanity is threatened.

It’s an unfair and unconvincing contrast.

No authority can state with certainty that 5G towers don’t pose a potential health risk; science requires data over time, and it can take decades to establish causative links that pass muster for regulation. There’ve been lively and unresolved debates online and in courtrooms about the effects of cellular phones for many years, not to mention things like GMOs and weed killers.

Dismissing the correlations that drive much of those debates as unsound or irrelevant is not only intellectually dishonest, but it tends to make people even more suspicious of institutional authority…especially when it seems hellbent on doing ugly things quickly.

Embracing innovative change is always a trade-off between the benefits of what we know we’re getting with the unknown risks of what they may cost.

There’s been little public debate about those trade-offs when it comes to 5G; instead, we’ve been inundated mostly with all of the material benefits it’ll yield, like faster shopping and fewer traffic jams. What are the greater dangers of being connected 24/7? Nobody knows, though anybody who has had an Internet outtage or poor cell reception knows the frustrations of network failure when you rely on it working.

Also, there’s the issue of state (and/or commercial) surveillance, which is one of the things those protesters in Hong Kong are standing up against (along with mainland rendition). People are fighting in the streets because they don’t want the government monitoring their every move, yet implementing 5G across America’s cities will effectively allow citizens to volunteer unwittingly for that oversight.

Things don’t have to be this way.

The proponents of 5G could do a better job of communicating not just its lifestyle benefits, but finding ways to make it relevant to helping solve more substantial, important problems. They could step back from lobbying the Feds to create sweetheart development paths, and spend more time in the heavy-lifting of honestly engaging with communities about the unanswerable questions that tech innovation and development present…and then make real commitments to partnering to study and address them.

Talk about having “purpose,” which is the latest buzzword in business management.

As for government, well, the Feds could stop being shills for unrestrained and unrepentant corporate interests.

Despite theology that claims otherwise, “free markets” don’t exist, and the self-correction of the imperfect real ones may be inevitable, but it can take time and result in a less desirable new normal: Just consider the laissez-faire approach to climate change, which amounts to waiting for the market to adapt to a warming world with things like workwear sunsuits and underground apartment buildings…instead of trying to preempt those needs.

Government is supposed to represent our interests and, in the case of 5G, that would mean advocating for more dialogue and more integrity. Sure, go fast and go ugly, but go forward together with the people who’ll have to live their lives bathed in that radiation as they have fun shopping and driving faster.

The communications mandate for 5G should be to enable that partnership — and some public/private consensus — and not just sell benefits to buyers and monopoly-like powers to its sellers

Otherwise, 5G is going to be a communications failure.

[This essay was originally published at A Cross of Silicon]
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