The development of 4G’s successor began before the fourth-generation wireless network had even rolled out. In 2008, less than a year after Steve Jobs unveiled the first ever iPhone, Nasa started work on 5G in the hope that the futuristic technology would one day facilitate “a new economy in space“.
It would take another year before 4G became commercially available, which together with the iPhone led the way for a decade of new apps, devices and innovation.
But while 4G was an era-defining technology that boosted the speed and utility of already existing products and platforms, the fifth generation feels to some like a solution in search of a problem.
While Nasa’s research foreshadowed the development of a space-based internet built on 5G networks, there have yet to be any revolutionary applications that people can actually use. Video downloads may be many-times faster than with 4G connections, but current speeds already mean streaming has largely negated the need to download films and other content.
The lack of everyday utility make it harder for technologists to defend 5G when crackpot conspiracy theories start circulating that it is the reason for a global pandemic.
The proliferation of these widely discredited ideas seems to have gained more attention in recent weeks than the actual purpose of the technology – so what exactly is 5G and what can it do?
What can 5G currently do and what is its potential?
UK networks began switching on 5G in 2019 but only on a very limited scale. Coverage maps show that large parts of the UK still don’t even have 4G, and areas with 5G tend to be limited to densely-populated urban areas.
In comparison with previous generations of data connections, 5G signals project over a smaller range, and so more masts are required to cover the same area. That has slowed the rollout and meant that coverage spots are much smaller than may be expected.
In the UK and elsewhere, delivering 5G has also been complicated by questions over the infrastructure required to make it work. Arguments over whether Chinese firm Huawei should be allowed to build the masts and other equipment required to broadcast 5G networks have slowed the rollout and led to widespread and sometimes confusing arguments in the media and among politicians.
Most high-end smartphone makers have also already starting releasing 5G versions of their flagship phones – Apple is the notable exception – though it would be difficult to find one for less than $6,230. That means only those fortunate enough to be able to afford a 5G phone and live in a 5G-supported area currently have access to it.
Much like with 4G, the full potential of 5G will likely not be realised until several years after its launch. 4G-enabled smartphones have transformed the way we work, travel, eat and pay. The new speed of wireless data transmission made apps like AirBnb and Deliveroo possible, fuelling a gig economy now worth an estimated $4.5 trillion.
One of the biggest benefits of 5G is lower latency, meaning no more lag on video calls. More significantly, this could enable things like remote surgery, whereby surgeons perform operations on patients thousands of miles away in real-time via robotic arms.
This is already happening in China, where the first remote operation using 5G technology took place last year. A doctor in the southeastern province of Fujian removed the liver of a laboratory test animal 30 miles away by remotely controlling robotic arms over a 5G connection with a lag of just 0.1 seconds.
Other near-future applications promoted by 5G evangelists include self-driving cars capable of communicating their intentions to other self-driving cars, fully immersive virtual reality worlds that allow people to physically interact with other people in real-time, and even a new era of hypersonic weapons.
Why are people worried about health risks?
Unfounded fears surrounding 5G date back long before the coronavirus pandemic, and can even be traced to before 5G itself existed.
Electromagnetic radiation from phone towers and other telecommunication infrastructure has proved a consistent source of concern for conspiracy theorists, despite their waveforms emitting harmless non-ionising radiation.
Online tools to track the location of phone towers often gain attention within paranoid circles. People fearful of 5G towers near to where they live have even sought to block the construction of towers despite there being no established threats to their health. Over the last week, arsonists have been blamed for a spate of fires at 5G towers across the UK.
Numerous studies over the last few decades have sought to assess the potential health risks of mobile phones but to date no adverse effects have been established. The World Health Organisation’s International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project has been analysing the scientific evidence of possible health outcomes from electromagnetic fields since 1996 but is yet to find any.
Online posts about the alleged threats often accuse mainstream media of being part of a deep state conspiracy or big tech cover-up, fuelling distrust and funnelling people to fringe websites and forums designed to amplify worries with baseless claims and scare-mongering rhetoric.
Headlines such as “5G apocalypse” top irrational articles warning things like: “5G is really an advanced, military-grade assault weapon in disguise that’s being implemented as a final solution against a free humanity.”
The absurd ideas would be comical if it wasn’t for the fact that seemingly rational people are reading and sharing them on a significant scale.
Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members serve as petri dishes for viral posts and memes to spread across newsfeeds and other social media platforms, infecting celebrities and other high-profile figures with the nonsensical beliefs. They in turn spread the misinformation to their millions of followers, adding a weight of authority through their celebrity status.
The arrival of a pandemic that coincidentally emerged from China, where much of the early 5G development is taking place, was just another peg for 5G ‘truthers’ to hang their unsubstantiated conspiracies.