Networked Dream Worlds

Is 5G solving real, pressing problems or merely creating new ones?

Your mobile service provider has probably shared the news: 5G cellular wireless, if it hasn’t arrived already, is coming soon! It promises to deliver speeds 100 times faster than that offered by previous-generation tech, as well as a network that can support 100 times as many connected devices. Latency, or lag-time, will be cut from roughly 50 milliseconds to one. With such optimal connectivity (as these articles detail), we can enjoy higher-quality streaming video, immersive multiplayer games, virtual reality that doesn’t rely on bulky headsets, more seamless augmented-reality applications, and constellations of networked smart devices that monitor our activity and customize our environments. And we can do it all wirelessly, which means we can perhaps finally “cut the cord” to our cable providers.

5G’s applications extend beyond personal entertainment and other promised benefits for individuals. Its ubiquity and instantaneity will make it possible for groups of people to engage in distant educational opportunities, distributed scientific experiments, and job-training simulations. Doctors can practice therapy or surgery from afar. Teachers and designers and lawyers can telecommute to work via hologram and enjoy new forms of remote collaboration — whether that’s making a movie or launching a drone strike.

The realization of a datafied dreamworld depends on physical stuff. And much of that hardware is entangled in global disputes over trade and security

The new network has also been framed as a critical infrastructure for the “smart city.” In Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It (2018), telecom scholar Susan Crawford imagines that cities — or, more likely, cities and their tech contractors — will rely on the network to “pull together, analyze, and understand all the data being collected by its transportation, water and energy networks,” leading to more efficient use of resources and deployment of services. A faster, more robust network will allow automated vehicles to communicate both with one another and with that “uber-map” in the cloud, deploying shuttles on demand and routing swarms of self-driving cars. The Internet of Things will connect millions of devices: air quality sensors and traffic cameras, smart watches and trash cans. And with centimeter-level location accuracy, 5G will enable emergency services to more efficiently pinpoint risks and identify suspects, and to swiftly deploy drones to the scene.

In short, enhanced connectivity promises accurate, efficient, integrated urban operations. Yet 5G’s rewards, we are told, will radiate far beyond metropolitan areas, delivering robust connectivity to historically underserved markets and rural areas that have never had access to broadband. We can bring the “smart city” to the farm, the refugee camp, and the one-room schoolhouse.

Even such ambitious visions might not scratch the surface of what’s possible. Former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell proposes that “the advent of 5G will allow entrepreneurs to create new technologies and products that we don’t even know we need yet. Ten years ago most consumers didn’t have a smartphone; now most can’t live without them. All of this happened thanks to 4G.” The implication being: 5G will blow our minds. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg is equally optimistic: When 4G came to market in 2010, he recalled, “Everyone was screaming, … ‘Why do we need it?’ The phones came and then bam! The innovation came from Silicon Valley.”

Perhaps it goes without saying that 5G promises to be highly profitable for wireless and tech companies. Some industry analysts have predicted that 5G could generate up to $12.3 trillion in goods and services by 2035, and add 22 million jobs in the U.S. alone. This helps explain why the carriers are so eager for us to share their vision for a better tomorrow — a world in which bandwidth, speed, and growth are virtues in and of themselves. Those “key performance indicators” are then sold to the consumer in the form of efficiency, inclusion, reliability, and convenience.

And while these 5G speculations suggest a world of possibility and profit, they elide lots of potential risks and alternative futures. They also, unsurprisingly, fail to ask about the wisdom of entrusting the telecom industry (which has a long history of unscrupulous, monopolistic business practices) and the tech industry (newly under fire for similar reasons) to build what is purportedly the critical infrastructure for a planned global transformation.

Paradoxically, this would-be revolution, one predicated on instantaneity, will roll out pretty slowly. Engineering a nationwide infrastructure for lightning-speed communication, it turns out, doesn’t happen at lightning speed. That’s in part because the realization of a datafied dreamworld, where everyone and everything is networked, depends on lots of physical stuff: cables and trenches, processors and poles, compatible phones and data centers. And much of that hardware is, for now, entangled in global disputes over trade and security, domestic disagreements over regulation and spectrum and sovereignty, and local debates over zoning and public space and public health. Thanks to these entangled controversies — chief among them, for now, the fate of China’s Huawei, positioned to be the world’s largest supplier of networking equipment — supply chains are halted, and installations are delayed. The “latency” in 5G’s rollout just might give us some time to look beyond the boosterism, consider the critiques lodged by concerned communities, figure out what kind of revolution 5G should be engendering, and conjure up some new “infrastructural imaginaries” — that is, visions for what infrastructures are and do, who they serve and how, what values they embody, and what they make possible.

Rolling out 5G isn’t simply a matter of upgrading phones and cell towers. It involves a massive infrastructural overhaul — a transformation dictated by the physics of electromagnetic spectrum. Bandwidth is limited in the mobile frequency range, and the Federal Communications Commission has committed to opening up additional spectrum. 5G is tuned to mid- and low frequencies below 6 gigahertz and, especially, higher frequencies with shorter wavelengths, between 30 and 300 GHz. These high-frequency “millimeter waves” don’t travel as far as 4G’s signals — around 1,000 feet, as opposed to 4G’s reach of several miles — and are susceptible to lots of obstacles: walls, trees, windows, weather.

If this touchy system is going to manage a deluge of data from VR and gaming and the Internet of Things, it will need a dense network of cellular base stations, much smaller and more numerous — perhaps 20 times as many as is required for 4G communications (although we’ll still need more traditional “macro” cells, too). These small cells, placed roughly every 500 feet along residential and commercial streets, might require the erection of new towers, or they might latch onto existing streetlights, utility poles, and buildings. Some service providers are planning to embed them in manhole covers.

Each cell comes with a “host of equipment, including antennas, power supplies, electric meters, switches, cabling and boxes often strapped to the sides of poles. Some may have refrigerator-sized containers on the ground.” Those antennae will have to be more numerous and efficient, too. Towers will host lots of tiny antennae that allow for the simultaneous transmission of multiple data streams along AI-mapped optimized routes — a process known as “beamforming.” Some industry analysts predict that all this new hardware could increase energy consumption significantly; one company predicts a 170-percent increase by 2026, but others assume that the technology will grow more energy efficient as the equipment evolves.

Plus, all those hardware installations will still need fiber. “It may sound paradoxical,” Crawford says, “but the future of advanced wireless services depends completely on how much fiber is in place.” We might be moving away from copper wire or coaxial cable, but all wireless traffic goes into the ground somewhere, because it has to reach an exchange point. The combination of “more spectrum, more towers, more fiber,” Crawford notes, “is necessary for all the 5G predictions you’ve heard to come true.” (Some, including Elon Musk, are betting on the need for more satellites, too.)

5G might also call for a denser network of smaller data centers. Huge, centralized data centers, like those favored by Amazon and Facebook, are often too remote to take advantage of 5G’s efficiencies, like the reductions in latency. The time it takes to transmit a multi-person video game from a center in Northern Virginia to, Connecticut, for instance, can compromise the experience. So some companies are planning smaller regional or metro data centers closer to their service communities — or even microcenters at the base of cell towers — to process data quickly. Yet just as 5G won’t replace fiber, and small cells won’t obsolesce big towers, these “edge data centers” probably won’t replace the traditional large, remote facilities, since we still have plenty of data uses that aren’t dependent on millisecond latencies, and plenty of storage needs. We’ll just keep generating and digesting more data, which necessitates more and more places to manage it.

Will we at some point regret having installed millions of cells and towers and mini-data centers for the sake of convenience?

Between new data centers, millions of new base stations (with their meters and switches and equipment boxes), new fiber installations, and perhaps even new windows that won’t block signals, 5G will produce what tech journalist Scott Fulton III calls “the most physically disruptive alteration to the nation’s communications infrastructure since the telegraph.” And the low altitude and density of that disruptive alteration will make it all the more visible and visceral. Residents will be able to watch 5G’s arrival — or encroachment — from their bedroom windows.

Some communities across the country are protesting 5G’s infrastructural clutter, lamenting the potential for decreased property values and sidewalk space sacrificed to bulky new hardware. And while local officials embrace the value of faster and broader connectivity and all the “smart” services it makes possible, many also want to retain control over the transformation of their streetscapes. Yet many municipalities’ existing zoning, permitting, and citizen-input processes simply haven’t been “upgraded” for 5G. As Fulton explains, “These lawmakers never anticipated an era [when] communications would need to be designed more like an irrigation system, where connectivity rains down upon its thirsty recipients,” rather than distributed from a central hub or a few major nodes. While many of 4G’s 200-foot towers were placed in areas zoned for industrial use, 5G’s smaller cells wouldn’t be subject to the same review. And  carriers will be able to use rights-of-way to install infrastructure on land they don’t own, which gives them “easy access to publicly funded infrastructure at taxpayer-subsidized rates, without any obligation to provide broadband access to underserved residents.” That’s how San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo sees it, and that’s why he resigned last year from an FCC 5G advisory committee.

Still, wireless carriers regularly complain to local, state, and federal officials that cities are charging exorbitant fees to use their poles, and that unreasonable scrutiny and overly restrictive local ordinances — micromanaging everything from notification requirements to landscaping — create massive delays in their roll-out plans. Many higher-level legislators have sided with the telcos. Some states have passed laws capping the amount cities can charge carriers to use their utility poles and pre-empting local restrictions. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has referred to community resistance as “NIMBYism run amok,” aims to “remove regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and to extend digital opportunity to all Americans.” The FCC has removed environmental and historical protection reviews for low 5G installations, and it passed new “shot clock” rules stipulating that cities have only a limited period of time to approve or reject carriers’ applications for new cells — and that no petition can be declined if it would prevent the delivery of wireless service. The petitioning process thus becomes little more than a formality, with digital inclusion serving as a partial pretense for corporate-friendly policy.

Just this past April, Palo Alto adopted a set of standards requiring that cells be installed a “minimum distance” from schools and homes, and identifying preferred installation designs, which include placing equipment in underground vaults and hiding it behind street signs. An AT&T representative, denouncing the city’s “burdensome” and “unreasonable” public process, retorted: “AT&T has the right to place facilities in the public rights-of-way, and this prohibition may violate that right.” Earlier this year, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, updated its zoning regulations to prioritize aesthetically appealing 5G installations. Other towns and cities are following suit.

Yet there’s more at stake here than pretty streets and property values. As community network expert Greta Byrum told me, “Telcos have really bad track records with digital redlining” — or, perpetuating iniquities between communities distinguished by race, class, and culture — “and one of the only opportunities cities have to regulate for equity are franchise agreements.” Fees levied for the use of street poles, or fines incurred for breach of contract, can be used to support cities’ digital inclusion efforts, Byrum says.

5G, we see here, is not just an issue of connectivity and convenience. It’s also about landscape, real estate, aesthetics, public resources, energy, equity, and governance. And these issues play out in tensions between the national and local scales, with the federal government (and its corporate entanglements) increasingly hobbling cities’ and towns’ capacity to direct 5G’s deployment on their streets and in their homes. Cautious city governments and local activists, meanwhile, impede the federal government’s rush to win the global 5G “race” and to gain a big advantage in all the industries built on 5G.

That “race” — a 21st-century Space Race at street level — is driven largely by market competition and international rivalries. Ericsson and Nokia used to dominate the networking-equipment industry, but today, China’s Huawei is the world’s largest manufacturer. The Chinese government has created infrastructures and incentives to expedite 5G innovation and to deploy Chinese gear (and the web services that run on it) around the world, particularly as part of their Belt and Road Initiative. If they “win,” we’ll see a world with much more Baidu, and much less Google.

Some Western leaders, led by Donald Trump, have expressed concern that China’s knowledge of and access to foreign networks could empower them not only to monitor and monetize the data flowing through their pipes but also to disrupt international communication. The topology and geographic distribution of the network — the fact that there are many more small nodes to hack into — renders it more vulnerable to such security breaches, some argue. Trump initially sought to implement a domestic ban on Huawei equipment and to convince other nations to do so too. Yet these policies, like pretty much everything else in the White House, vary with the president’s mood and company. Thus, we’re building international trade policy on the whims of a tyrant — and those policies will in turn shape the deployment of equipment necessary to network nations, privileging particular forms of communication and embedding particular network politics and values in the process.

Speed is a prime virtue. And this emphasis on speed — fast networks, extemporaneous policy-making, and fast installation — leaves little time for reflection on historical lessons: 50 years ago we ran highways through urban neighborhoods, for the sake of access and convenience, gutting cities in the process. Will we at some point regret having installed millions of cells and towers and mini-data centers for the sake of digital access and convenience? The telecom vision and its technical architecture are in many cases limiting our deliberations over local values and global politics, as well as our ability to imagine what kind of infrastructures and societies we want to build. Will the “smartening” of our villages and cities — and the opportunities that access and efficiency afford — ultimately make all the aesthetic compromises, political trade-offs, and equity concessions worthwhile?

Between the local, national, and global scales, 5G refracts an array of imaginaries: as promissory notes of immanent progress and profit, or as platforms for private development or local solidarity. For some, it’s also a harbinger of invasion: techno-clutter infesting our well-kempt neighborhoods, federal interests breaching local rule, foreign hardware and hackers invading our secure networks. That image of invasion also reflects inward, toward our own bodies.

Reasoned skepticism, paranoia, and spurious (read: telco-funded) science are swirling around 5G’s physics and physiological effects. Some critics believe that 5G’s infrastructural density and its microscale radiation constitute an entirely new electromagnetic geography, a wild Hertzian terrain. California councilwoman Reinette Senum argues that “under the current 5G plan every square inch of America will be bathed and covered in penetrating and irradiating microwaves like never before.” It’s natural to be skeptical, Fulton says, “about any new project that would envelop the planet in a tight-knit cap of transmitters whose technology, in another form, is frequently used to quickly reheat … burritos.”

Maybe 6G, unlike its predecessor, won’t be about being first, fastest, or most ubiquitous, but about energy efficiency. Or local responsiveness

In a statement last updated in November 2018, the American Cancer Society explained that cell towers’ radiofrequency waves are “non-ionizing radiation,” which means that “they do not directly damage the DNA inside cells,” as do X-rays, gamma rays, and UV light. Yet last spring The Nation published an article that cited various studies offering evidence that wireless has deleterious effects on our health, and lamented the telecom companies’ ongoing interference in wireless research. It advocated for a delay of 5G’s deployment until further study can be done. Vox, too, published a lengthy survey of existing cell radiation research — which, they found, is inconclusive — and called for both more research on 5G and better consumer protections. Several towns in Marin County, California, have passed urgency ordinances prohibiting wireless towers in residential areas, on the grounds that the health and safety of the community might be at risk.

Media theorist Mél Hogan notes that individual reports of bodily responses to radio- and electromagnetic frequencies are often “at best deemed highly subjective, if not dismissed as mere hysterical overreactions.” Regardless of the scientific legitimacy of these claims, they reveal how externally imposed, seemingly invasive technologies are sometimes experienced by people sensing their own vulnerability and disempowerment. Some of their trepidation might be attributable to technical ignorance or willful obstructionism, but other public concerns are rooted in deep legacies of infrastructural and environmental injustice. Unease about new infrastructural projects might arise among those who have historically lived on the metaphorical and literal margins of society, as Rahul Mukherjee’s research demonstrates. Dwelling near nuclear plants and hazardous waste disposal sites, or amid leaded pipes, tends to cultivate distrust of other obfuscatory infrastructures.

And the personal risks of 5G are not merely matters of radiation. As Jacek Kibilda, research fellow at CONNECT, an Irish research center for future networks and communications, told me, a risk often overlooked in popular debates about 5G is personal privacy: Increased bandwidth will allow for the networking of millions of sensors and cameras, enabling a massive surveillance network. What’s more, the promised gains in speed, which we typically attribute to a faster, technologically superior network, will be due in part to advances in tracking. Optimization and customization are made possible because of more thorough customer surveillance.

Similar concerns — about invasion and irradiation — have accompanied other new technologies, from electricity to radio to, not long ago, 4G. The electromagnetic spectrum, in its material ambiguity, lends itself to multiple imaginaries and applications. To regulators and carriers, it’s real estate to be parceled up and sold; it’s territory to be fought for. To technoenthusiasts, it’s an ethereal realm of possibility and opportunity. To others, it’s a commons. As Greta Byrum suggested to me, public airwaves are like public lands, and we have to ask who should benefit from their use. To still others, it’s the Wild West: With cars, pacemakers, and mobile payment apps all linked through the ether, some worry (as this New Yorker article details) that the 5G world presents new opportunities to shady entrepreneurs, hackers, and cyberterrorists. And to some members of the public, electromagnetic waves are an invasive, penetrating, irradiating force, blasting us with the data of billions of connected objects.

5G coverage currently exists in just a few dozen U.S. cities, each serviced (patchily) by a different carrier — a model quite similar to the cable industry’s regional monopolies of the 1990s. And even if some of the necessary hardware is in place, 5G-ready phones are still scarce. Real 5G “won’t become a reality for at least a year,” according to Wired’s Lauren Goode. Even then, the patchiness will likely continue: Some areas, mostly urban, will get large bandwidth, and everywhere else will be stuck with the equivalent of slightly improved 4G.

In this moment of latency, why not engage with some of the debates and concerns we addressed above? Why not prioritize independent research on 5G’s health effects and consider how to communicate this research intelligibly to the public? Why not acknowledge the legacies of infrastructural anxiety experienced by particular marginalized publics? Why not imagine how local communities can meaningfully engage with telecom corporations to build networks that reflect their interests and values?

Or, better yet, rather than assume that corporations necessarily provide connectivity, as has historically been the case in the U.S., perhaps we should ask why the internet, today an essential public necessity, shouldn’t instead be a public utility? Last year the U.S. National Security Council proposed nationalizing the 5G network, but the author of that memo quickly departed — and Robert McDowell, then FCC commissioner, dismissed the proposal as “precisely the wrong approach. Overregulation would crush next-gen wireless in its cradle.” Yet must all innovation arrive through corporate channels? Perhaps instead we should focus our imagination on the new publics constituted by a novel network architecture — and the politics embodied within it.

What we need, Crawford argues, is not 5G as it’s currently blueprinted, but “neutral, open physical [fiber] infrastructure.” Such a system seems unimaginable in the U.S., she suggests, because of “decades of political maneuvering by the enormous private [telecom] companies…, a lack of leadership at the federal level, and the invisibility of this entire policy area.” Yet some communities — including many that haven’t been served well by corporate carriers — have been leading and innovating in this terrain. We must look to open-access community broadband networks or mesh networks — and to historical studies of other activist and public infrastructures — to understand how some municipalities have built their own infrastructures to meet their self-determined needs and embody their own self-defined values. These visions could be extended to other cities — and to towns and villages and the sparsely populated terrains in-between, with federal policy that supports such efforts so that individual municipalities needn’t fight the same fights over and over.

We also need to ask some more fundamental questions. Do we really need 5G’s datafied dream world? Is it solving real, pressing problems? Do we want a world filtered through augmented-reality goggles, a world that makes it ever easier for us to participate in public life remotely, a world where our online and real-life activities are tracked and mapped to facilitate not only “seamless” online consumer experiences but also authorities’ ability to monitor populations already subject to oppression? What new security risks arise when all our gadgets are linked to the internet, when fundamental services are dependent upon constant connectivity? What happens when many of our internet exchange points and much of our fiber infrastructure are underwater due to climate change — and how might 5G’s energy expenditure expedite such crises? Do our livelihoods and happiness depend upon instantaneous access and unlimited content? Should telecom companies get to set global priorities and dictate policy? Is 5G worth all the trouble? Was 4G really so bad?

Wouldn’t our time and money be better spent simply extending pretty-darn-fast, if not lightning-speed, connectivity to those regions of the world with insufficient access, or none at all?

What’s more, we need to acknowledge how those marketing fantasies and policy scenarios have limited our imaginations. Are their 5G utopias really as revolutionary as we’re led to believe? Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New, Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New, and Imar de Vries’s Tantalisingly Close remind us that, despite the continual emergence of “always already new” technologies, our dreams and desires for the worlds they’ll create are pretty predictable. Futurists and corporate soothsayers conjure up similar visions every time a new gadget or platform comes along. While 5G might deliver unprecedented speeds and vectors of connectivity, many of its signature fantasies still involve linking the same stuff: robots and animated objects and families separated by continents and oceans. Billions of dollars and of millions of small cells later, we’re still pursuing the same old dreams.

Maybe we need new dreams. Even Vodafone CTO Scott Petty reminds us that this one will wear itself out soon enough: “5G will not be able to handle the number of ‘things’ which are now connected to the network in a couple of years’ time … We need to start thinking about 6G now.” Maybe 6G, unlike its predecessors, won’t be about being first or fastest, most ubiquitous or unrelenting. Maybe it will be about energy efficiency. Or local responsiveness. Or slowness. Or reflexivity. Or privacy, or equity, or digital justice. Maybe 6G will enact a broader digital ethos, which affirms “the ways that technology can help individuals and communities be and relate to each other,” as Seeta Peña Gangadharan puts it in “Digital Exclusion: A Politics of Refusal.” This implies a refusal of “access,” speed, and growth as ends in themselves, and of tech companies’ hegemonic rule as a natural law. Not a vision likely to rouse the telecom execs — but hey, our imagination can exceed their corporate vision.

Our fiber-optic cables, small cells, and 5G-ready phones — and the policies informing their construction, management, and maintenance — are infused with imaginaries: visions of what this new network should make possible and who it should serve. Infrastructures are more than the cold, hard facts of equipment and markets and policy. They’re also the products of politics and paranoias, fantasies and fears. Whatever “real 5G” is, if it ever arrives, its “reality” will likely reflect the priorities of its network engineers and profiteers – unless we seize the opportunity to think beyond millisecond latencies and self-driving cars toward more pressing, communal and enduring concerns: like how to embody aspirational politics in the infrastructures that network a public, a nation, a world. Such a scenario may seem unlikely, but then again, so does 5G’s promised Tomorrowland of sentient toasters and robot doctors. Legislators and activists may still unite to effect a real “5G revolution.”

Shannon Mattern is a Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. She is the author of The New Downtown Library: Designing with CommunitiesDeep Mapping the Media City, and Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media, all published by University of Minnesota Press. In addition to writing dozens of articles and book chapters, she also contributes a regular long-form column about urban data and mediated infrastructures to Places, a journal focusing on architecture, urbanism, and landscape, and she collaborates on public design and interactive projects and exhibitions.