5G: Raising the debate

To you, the person reading this opinion column: do not despair!

Our aim is not to indulge in political one-upmanship, but to help you better understand 5G technology, a subject of extensive press coverage these days.

5G is not a disruptive technology.

5G is not a giant commercial plan aiming to pressure us into replacing our electronic devices.

To sum it up, 5G is not for us, humble consumers.

Let’s jump into it.

Little spot on the G’s

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is an international cooperative effort between a group of similar agencies from the biggest geopolitical areas of the planet: for example, CCSA for China, ARIB for Japan, ATIS for North America, ETSI for Europe or TTA for South Korea. The aim of this cooperation is to progress on global standardization of mobile telecommunications. The 3GPP publishes standards as numbered releases, labelled or even marketed. For example, « release 14 » is better known as « LTE Advanced » (LTE stands for Long Term Evolution), which is the latest upgrade to 4G. Next to be published are « release 15 » and « release 16 » about 5G and 5G over satellite, respectively.

As such, 5G is a logical step in the continued development of the 3GPP’s works. It does not mandate a full replacement of the current network. For some 4G towers and antennas, all that is required is a mere software upgrade to 5G.

This new standard that we might simply call V. 5.0, enables the use (and reuse) of several ranges of radio frequencies, some of which are already partly exploited for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTTV). (1) (2) (3)

It is true that technological evolution requires occasional hardware replacement. 

Exacerbated consumerism motivates us to replace our devices too often, or buy the latest gizmos. This is not specific to 5G. For example, a smartphone’s average lifetime is about 3 years, but this could be extended. Screens and batteries can be fixed easily and phone makers should be encouraged to make that easier for us. 

A growing share of smartphones currently on sale in France, even though 5G is not even deployed, are 5G-compatible nonetheless. As 5G is not specifically French, it is deployed in many other countries. Phone makers haven’t waited for France to make up its mind on the matter.

Replacing our smartphones requires significant resources, especially rare-earth metals. Their extraction will also generate a notable amount of greenhouse gas. This is not at all specific to 5G, but instead depends on our political and economical decisions.

Data and energy consumption

Energy is vital in the digital world, but wasting it is a no-go. To resolve a problem with equal efficiency, we will then try to consume as little energy as possible for two reasons:

  • At constant efficiency, less money is spent to maintain the infrastructure;
  • At constant energy, some limits can be overcome

5G allows for a better communication beam management with two instant benefits: 

  • decrease in energy consumption because the scattering of radio waves is limited ; 
  • An improvement of the usage quality of radio waves, because interferences are prevented. 

Next, the 5G protocol is smart. Smarter than 4G. It can effectively adapt  performance and energy consumption of some cell towers and reactivate them when the need occurs. In other words, the stop & start principle (auto stop and restart of the engine), already used on new cars, is applied here to these antennas.

Eventually, 5G will allow closing 3G and 4G services altogether and recycling their frequency band. Those two generations consume too much energy to provide services that are not up to our expectations anymore.

Furthermore, 5G enables the organization of local decentralized networks without going through full infrastructures. It allows connected devices, structures, and various sensors to interact directly, which translates in latency reduction.

This technological progress is of interest for the automotive industry among others: emergency braking in autonomous vehicles is constrained by current network limitations as they can’t communicate with each other fast enough to react efficiently.

For a number of sectors, this new network technology will ease the transition to the Internet of Things (IoT) which in turn will reduce resource usage compared to existing networks.

What could happen without 5G ?

There is no way for network usage to stop growing if we reject 5G. Industry will need 5G to efficiently prepare its needs in terms of network usage.

Without it, we won’t be able to reduce the digital divide any further. As we  have seen with the transition from 3G to 4G, users will end up petitioning network operators to force them to reduce network congestion.

Without 5G, we will need even more 4G towers, which use more power than 5G towers for the same usage. As a matter of fact, this is the conclusion from the ANFR (Agence Nationale des Fréquences, the French RadioFrequencies National Agency): absorbed power will be greater if we keep 4G only instead of mixing 4G and 5G. (4)

5G: it’s a tool

5G is a tool that generates many questions, but those questions are focused on the tool itself rather than on the societal choices that we make, or rather, don’t make.

5G will allow for better data transmission, but we must stay alert about our personal data security. We must continue all of our efforts to promote privacy and individual freedom policies and to do that, laws will have to pass (or be repealed), 5G or not.

If 5G indeed promotes the emergence of smartcities (5), they will develop most likely in spite of its absence, under the impulsion of ambitious local environmental policies that cannot function without consuming data, and will in fact lead to the saturation of an already very busy network.

What we can do

Today, the French territory is covered by four 4G networks (6) operated by four different operators (Bouygues, Orange, Free and SFR). Today, none of these networks covers 100% of French territory, and each network is independent, except in the case of roaming and contractual sharing between some operators. 

At our political level, we can ask, for example, for the pooling of networks to reduce the number of 5G networks authorized for construction and operation to two, without causing the disappearance of operators who will have to focus more on the services provided than on the quality of the network. 

We can also request that the deployment of 5G help to cover grey areas & dead zones, in particular to absorb delays or absences in fiber deployment (the installation of which should be a priority).

We can encourage the development of local repair and recycling channels specific to digital technology through political and economic choices.

We may also decide that the construction of our digital devices should be subjected to strict regulations limiting the production of CO2 and that manufacturers should provide software updates over longer periods of time for older hardware.

What we have to do

We have to steer companies towards the production of repairable and upgradable equipment.

We have to reflect on our consumption, and beyond this, about the advertising that encourages us to get more efficient technologies than we need. This advertising takes place in the real, digital and energy world as much by the multiplication of advertising screens as by the multiplication of spam or advertising inserts on our favorite sites; this advertising that watches over us, using our data to better sell us products or services that we don’t need. 

What we have to fear is a society that pushes us to consume more and more, more and more connected objects, more and more fashionable gadgets, more and more of everything. 

5G will allow us to better connect with each other. But whether it is deployed or not, we will, in any case, have to deal with all the issues raised by the debate surrounding its deployment. In other words, these debates are legitimate, and it is only by considering them as such that we will be able to respond to them, rather than by opposing 5G as a matter of principle.

This article is only an introduction to our thoughts about 5G, as we are thinking about what it enables us to do without neglecting its weaknesses. 

We are aware that these weaknesses are caused by the impossibility to know what the future will hold and our collective ability to turn tools at our disposal against each other, or at the contrary, frame them as best as we can so that they fit in the society we are aiming for.

We, Pirates, denounce the anxiety-provoking speeches based on bogus data, or data which has been distorted for electioneering purposes. 

We can not accept that politicians responsible for deciding our future hide behind fake issues to avoid opening a real debate about our society.

PS : We will not tell you that 5G is a possible carcinogenic according to the World Health Organization. We do not want to scare you with information that is also valid for other products or activities against which we have not planned to campaign like aloe vera, woodworking, dry cleaning…


(1) https://www.anfr.fr/publications/dossiers-thematiques/la-5g/les-changements-technologiques-de-la-5g/

(2) https://www.generation-nt.com/arcep-tnt-regulation-frequences-5g-actualite-1955076.html

(3) https://www.numerama.com/politique/387748-le-regulateur-des-telecoms-anticipe-la-fin-de-la-tnt-la-5g-en-embuscade.html

(4) https://www.clubic.com/reseau-mobile/actualite-13156-l-anfr-simule-l-exposition-aux-ondes-causees-par-des-antennes-4g-et-5g-et-livre-ses-resultats.html

(5) https://www.zdnet.fr/actualites/comment-la-5g-va-faire-des-smart-cities-une-realite-39880333.htm

(6) https://www.couverture-mobile.fr/?page=statistiqueshttps://www.arcep.fr/nos-sujetshtml/parlons-5g-toutes-vos-questions-sur-la-5g.html