True costs of 5G

Marieke writes*

The wireless network has become an indispensable part of our society, the 5th generation will soon be implemented. The implementation of the 5G network in the Netherlands is planned in Amsterdam by 2020, and from 2025 onwards all European cities have to be covered according to the Dutch news provider.

What does 5G actually entail? Technically speaking, 5G enables a much faster connection (up until 20 Gbps, which means 20 times faster Wi-Fi and 30 times faster data) and it used a much bigger bandwidth of the mobile broadband, which will generate a bigger capacity and coverage for all network-users. Next to providing the possibility of using the wireless network with a massively increased speed, the 5G network will also enable the following possibilities:

  • Internet of things, e.g., smart heating-systems, self-ordering fridges, etc.
  • Self-driving cars
  • Smart cities, e.g., parking lots with sensors or automatic streetlamps
  • Industrialized automation, e.g., scheduling maintenance from a distance
  • Voice commands via devices such as Siri, Alexa and Google

For 5G internet many more, but smaller antennas are needed than for 4G. Volkskrant says that to cover an entire city with internet, an antenna is needed on every corner of the street.

When reading into the literature (both academic, peer reviewed sources, newspaper articles and websites of pro-5G stakeholders), it becomes clear that 5G is mainly presented as economically profitable, firstly because of the insane number of new products that can be brought onto the market or other uses of products that can be optimized, but also because it is said to be more energy efficient than 4G networks. T-mobile for example emphasizes that industrialized automation will save a lot of costs that are a result of current inefficiencies in the production process of many products and services.

However, what remains undiscussed in these sources, are the negative  externalities. For example:

  • Energy costs: even though 5G uses less energy per operation, the overall use of internet will increase, because more devices will be connected to the wireless system. Next to this, 5G requires the production of new devices and infrastructure to replace 4G devices and systems, increasing energy consumption and CO2 emissions [pdf].
  • Impact of radiation on mental health: it is argued that the addition of the high frequency 5G radiation to an already complex mix of lower frequencies (prior generations), will contribute to a negative public health outcome. It is stressed that the effects are still too unclear to draw any long-term conclusions. Additionally, the effects are hard to measure, since there is no control group anymore (everyone is exposed to the radiation). It is emphasized that these effects need to be studied before 5G is brought to the market
  • Lastly, the current generation of wireless connection, is already proven to negatively impact mental health, when assessing the impact of smartphone and social media use. The question arises if this would increase with the introduction to 5G.

Bottom line: For my essay I want to research the costs of these externalities and compare them to the economic benefits of the implementation of the 5G network.


* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

7 thoughts on “True costs of 5G”

  1. Hi Marieke, I really like that you are focusing on such an original topic. I would like to make a suggestion, namely that you focus on one facet of 5G. As you mention, the applications of 5G are wide and unpredictable, which would make it difficult to design a cost/benefit model. To make my comment more useful, I would add that it is important to be specific about the limits of the model, should you focus on a single application of 5G (e.g. self-driving cars). This would prevent you from comparing a benefit of 5G for self-driving cars with a negative impact of another 5G application. I think there is still room for you to also include omnipresent costs of 5G such as radiation, but again, I would select only a handful.

  2. Interesting read Marieke! As a consumer I’m all about making things faster and better but as I write this I can feel my eyes ache from the sheer hours I spend looking at screens all the time. Economically the positives are so crystal clear but as you talk about, what are the real social costs. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has extensively researched the detrimental effects of social media usage and smartphones on the developing mind and concluded that phones and instant gratification (a product of fast internet connections) is giving teens anxiety and greatly worsening mental health. On the other hand it’s hard to say no to what is empirically progress (faster speeds) and who are we to restrict technology, even if it is for the better.

  3. I like this topic. It gives a different view on what ‘the environment’ entails. The way you first summed up the benefits and after that the potential harms is also really clear. In your final paper, I would really focus on the fact that that everyone will benefit from 5G and that everyone will bear the same threat of an antenna in close proximity. I would also focus on the uncertainty aspect of the health impacts of 5G (look at the fat tail paper) but make sure that the fact that there is uncertainty is properly backed by literature.
    You should be cautious in assuming certain trends. For example, you argued that by the development of a 5G network, people will use more electronic devices. This is not backed with any article and (therefor) a misplaced assertion.
    Overall a nice article and a really interesting topic!!

  4. Hi Marieke! I think the developments surrounding the development of the 5G network are very interesting. I have a some questions and a suggestion, I agree with Pieter’s comment that it is important to clearly differentiate between the different benefits and costs from different technological developments. However, in the case that you decide to take a more holistic approach and take all the costs and benefits into account, it might be interesting to also look into the influence of Huawei in developing the network and how this might result in costs surrounding data protection. I was furthermore wondering how much research has been done on the health effects of 5G radiation on health and whether this is enough to get a clear image of the potential costs it would have?

  5. Hi Marieke, I’m also going to add my two cents to this wealth of comments. I would suggest that in your final paper you take into account not only the positive and negative effects, but also the distribution of these effects. Are benefits and costs born by the same people? Or do the benefits of 5G accrue disproportionally to one group, while another group bears the cost? Good luck!

  6. Hi Marieke,

    I’m curious about your discussion of energy costs. You worry that expanded high-quality connections will raise the usage of the internet. It probably will. However, when that expansion drives more energy use is it a bad thing?
    In principle, energy use then leads to CO2 emissions. But increasing the volume of energy can increase the benefits associated with a switch to forms of energy with higher fixed and lower marginal costs (think solar). So long term, is the net impact negative?

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