England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

5G: socialist change needed to ensure access and benefit for all

The media world is full of chatter about 5G. Some people think it is a world saving technology that will deliver us into a new techno utopia – fewer believe that it causes Covid, cancer and is generally a harbinger of the end times. Neither of these viewpoints are correct. The second point is far easier to debunk than the first – since the CEOs are not wearing lead suits, it is quite unlikely that the rays are dangerous. The capitalist class has a not-so-proud history of poisoning the workers, whether through lead paint or toxic runoff. However, they very rarely dump toxic waste into their own gardens – and 5G is set to be deployed at largest scale in the richest parts of society. Attacks on towers and telecom workers achieve nothing but harm and are a misdirection of rage at a system that has left many workers behind. This energy needs to be directed into doing away with the capitalist system acts of individual terrorism will never achieve this.

5G is very poorly defined in most media. It is not a single technology but a collection of new standards that together constitute the fifth generation of mobile networking. The first important thing to note about 5G is that most deployments are designed for uneven coverage. There are three main types of 5G base station, each using a different bandwidth: low, medium and high band. Low band offers roughly the same speeds as 4G, while high band offers the speeds which most tech journalists fawn over.

These high band towers offer incredible performance, but at a cost – they have a range of only around 1000 feet. For comparison current 4G towers and low band 5G towers have a range of 10 miles, more than 50 times further than high frequency 5G. This means that high frequency 5G deployments require a huge number of base stations anywhere that needs coverage. As you can imagine the plans are currently to deploy these only to metropolitan areas – where there would be enough customers for the telecom companies to make a profit from the installation. The cost of high frequency deployment guarantees that 5G will be deployed unevenly – with blazingly fast connections for areas that can afford it, and little improvement for those outside these areas.

The short range of a top end 5G tower also presents a number of important logistical challenges. For a city to be properly wired up with full 5G coverage a base station must be placed around every 500 feet. The question of where these towers should be installed is taking place behind closed doors. Masts are already being installed across the country and we have seen a number of incidents where local residents have objected to the imposition of a base station on their streets – but have been left with no recourse. It’s clear that profits and the abstract idea of ‘progress’ are being put ahead of the real needs of our people.

This has also been undertaken with little regard to preserving historically and culturally important sites. The Church of England has reached an agreement with a number of telecom providers to install 5G base stations in places of worship. This is not a new phenomenon. There are already 16,000 churches in the UK that are formally serving as network nodes. Vodaphone’s head of networks Kye Prigg let the mask slip when, referring to previous rollouts, he stated that “it looked like they were trying to help the community but really it has been about monetising the steeple.”

The government is keen that our concerns do not stop them from becoming a telecoms world leader. They have proposed removing the already very limited power of local councils to reject the installation of 5G infrastructure in their areas. They have even proposed doing away with planning permission entirely – instead, giving private telecom companies a blanket “permitted development right.” This would enable telecom giants to install towers of at least 20m in height without any approval from local authorities. In Birmingham a tower of this height has already been proposed and is being opposed by local councillors. Labour’s Councillor Rob Pocock stated that “in effect, the government intends that masts of the kind being proposed at Sutton Oak Road would be installed by the telecoms companies without residents or indeed councils having any say in it whatsoever. These proposals are potentially robbing people of their right to a democratic vote!”

These concerns are often dismissed by the liberal establishment as pure NIMBYism. One article published at ISPReview.com laments the “tedious process of planning permission” when referring to plans to increase the height of a Manchester tower by 7.5m and to deploy new 5G infrastructure on top of it. The writer callously dismisses local opposition, stating: “Suffice to say that adding a bit of height isn’t likely to make too much of a difference to the local area, which is already fairly mixed in appearance.”

There is little doubt that 5G networks will outperform the current generation. But what will this enable? As Marxists we understand that all large-scale technology is implemented to serve the interests of the current ruling class. Trotsky put this well when he stated that: “Technique and science develop not in a vacuum but in human society, which consists of classes. The ruling class, the possessing class, controls technique and through it controls nature. Technique in itself cannot be called either militaristic or pacifistic. In a society in which the ruling class is militaristic, technique is in the service of militarism.”

In capitalist society the driving force of the ruling class is private profit, and the installation of these new networks definitely enable further exploitation and accelerated accumulation of capital. At the most basic level it will allow industry to automate and monitor far more than the current network allows. With industry in private hands this means job losses for the masses and profits for the bosses. If industry was publicly owned under the democratic control of workers then this automation could benefit the whole of society.

5G towers will allow around one million ‘smart’ devices to communicate per square mile. This will enable an explosion in the Internet of Things (IOT) – networked devices across the country that communicate with each other to collect data. At its best, IOT can be used to develop and deliver incredibly optimised processes. There is an orthodoxy in the ruling class that IOT is going to be the next big thing, that it will produce a huge surplus of value any day now. At present this value is largely speculative in nature, huge troves of data are being collected with the promise that one day somebody will find something to do with it. 5G is likely to be the key that unlocks this data. It will enable lightweight smart devices to send their sensor feeds back to data centres for crunching in real time. Demos are already in place showing factories with robots and cameras being controlled remotely from the cloud.

It is clear that AI and the Internet of Things cannot be left in the hands of the bosses. Companies like Amazon are using their innovations as chains to bind the working class. We are monitored constantly at work and algorithms help them decide who to work harder, who to sack and who is at risk of doing something dangerous like unionising. Internal documents from Amazon have proven that they have created an interactive heat map of their 510 Whole Foods locations across the US – and assigned each store a unionization risk score. Their calculations used factors like “employee loyalty, turnover rate and racial diversity.”

The promise of increased speed for urban centres is also appealing to the ruling class – it will enable a new generation of toys for the super-rich – with self-driving cars, seamless virtual reality and an endless stream of ‘smart’ devices providing a colourful set of distractions while our planet collapses under the weight of their greed.

But beyond the immediate uses of 5G technology itself, the project of deploying it is incredibly valuable for a number of reasons. There is a huge opportunity in the rollout of 5G – it is being called the critical infrastructure of our generation. Private companies stand to make huge profits from the installation and ultimately the ownership of this structure. Huge contracts for the development and installation of 5G infrastructure are providing new market opportunities for the private sector. We are also seeing this become a key part of the trade war between China and the US. Over a sustained period the world is increasingly fractured into competing blocs, with smaller countries forced to choose which superpower they will trust with their telecoms. Cisco or Huawei, Trump or Xi Jinping.

The question of whether or not there is a backdoor in Huawei kit is inane. Of course there is, just like there is a backdoor in Cisco kit, and a backdoor in all the legacy kit. The real argument isn’t whether there’s a risk of Chinese kit being used for spying – it’s a flat choice as to whether we want the American or Chinese state to have access to our data. This is not conjecture. There is a long history of Cisco made network infrastructure being used by American institutions like the National Security Agency (NSA) for spying. In 2013, the German newspaper Der Spiegel revealed that the NSA was able to use backdoors in Cisco kit. Cisco denied that they were collaborating with the state but leaks like this kept happening. In 2014 another so called “undocumented test interface” was found in Cisco small business hardware. And in 2018 it was revealed that 8.5 million Cisco routers had a hidden hardcoded account for remote access.

Of course, none of this is to say that we should reject or oppose technological development, but simply that under capitalist rule its development will continue to deepen inequality and serve as a means for collecting and monetising data on working class people. A democratic planned economy, by contrast, could use the resources that have been piled into 5G to meet the real needs of humankind. For starters, 1.9 million households in Britain have no access to the internet – and at least 10 million more have only ‘pay as you go’ sim cards allowing them a trickle of access to our networks. As digital services increasingly become the default, families are left to choose between an internet connection and food. This inequality is most often described as “the digital divide.”

Those who punt 5G would quickly butt in at this point to explain that 5G will go a long way to addressing the digital divide. Tech companies have spent a great deal of effort convincing us that this is the case. The best example of this is Cisco’s 5G Rural First campaign. They managed a deployment of 5G base stations to rural communities – providing connectivity to those who previously had to go without and proving that the Internet of Things could be useful in tracking salmon for fishing.

Crucially though, the organisers admitted that almost everything they did would have been possible on older 4G technology. The issue is not that we don’t have good enough technology to bring the internet to deprived communities – the issue is that our ruling class doesn’t care to. It’s not profitable to run fibre-optic to sparsely populated countryside and there’s not usually money in providing free unrestricted access to what ought to be infrastructure. The issue is one of resources and where they go. A planned economy could easily prioritise full coverage over blazing fast speeds – but a market economy in the hands of the capitalists simply does not.

Every human should have access to the internet. Crucially this access must be unrestricted. Companies like Facebook are deploying what they call “free” network access across the developing world – but to borrow a term from the open source community – this access is “free as in beer, not free as in freedom.” Users find themselves locked in to Facebook and its subsidiaries and partners – unable to access unrestricted information. While this does cost Facebook money in the short term, much like Coca Cola did in the last century, they are laying the groundwork for a future monopoly – and not acting through altruism.

In large swathes of Africa, a paltry 1GB of data costs 8% of an average household’s monthly income. We need to focus on building a network that works for everyone, using hardware that lasts – and doesn’t need to be replaced every few years to make way for the new shiny. Smartphones must be built to be repaired and upgraded – rather than thrown in the tip when 6g comes out. 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were produced worldwide in 2017 and 90% of it was scrapped. Even in the 10% of cases where this waste is disposed of properly – it is often sent to countries like the Philippines where scrap is melted down to extract metals that can be used in new devices. This melting is highly dangerous work and is conducted in unsafe conditions.

There is a desperate need for a change of course in the development of mobile technology, and the capitalist class has demonstrated that they are incapable of delivering this change. We need hardware that lasts. 5G will not work on any previous generation devices. There are at least 2.9 billion handsets in the world that will not work with the new towers. While 4G will still be available for the foreseeable future (2G is still online in the UK and there are no plans to scrap it within the next ten years), the pressure will still exist on all of us to upgrade to the latest devices in order to access new 5G functionality.

Since mobile phones are not designed to be modular upgrading to get access to the new 5G network requires the disposal of a perfectly good smartphone – because these devices are so tightly integrated almost no components are upgradeable. The ostensible reason for this is that it allows smartphones to be thinner and more desirable to consumers, but of course it also suits the manufacturers since it means that if just one component of a mobile device is no longer adequate the entire thing must be upgraded. The average smartphone in the UK only lasts 26 months before it is replaced.

There is a real need for the development of mobile technology that lasts and can be upgraded and repaired; currently, the cycle of upgrades rather suits the bosses – who can sell us a new device every time ours fail or become too slow to work with. A large part of the reason for the development of 5G is that it will keep this cycle going. Mobile device sales are slowing down as each generation of mobile devices struggles to distinguish itself from the last. There is much talk about how 5G can drive a “super cycle” of mobile device upgrades – economic activity that serves to do little more than enrich the few at our expense and fill up landfills.

There have been a number of efforts to produce sustainable smart devices under capitalism. Projects like the Fairphone aim to provide a more ethical alternative for consumers. But the reality is that this will never be the most profitable approach. For this reason, these devices will always be on the fringe – as they cannot beat the large handset manufacturers who squeeze every last penny out of each device they produce. This means that these handsets will most likely remain as an expensive fringe choice – not benefiting from the scale of production that mainstream products do and serving mostly to help their richer owners sleep at night.

We need a sustainable mobile network that everyone can benefit from and the only way to achieve this is to build a socialist world. We cannot wait for the slow march of technological development to inevitably reach a conclusion that serves the working class – because it will not. In the hands of capitalists, technology is used to ramp up consumption and to exploit and oppress our class. We must overthrow this rotten system and build technology that works for all of us.


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