A geek researches 5G and discovers how he contributes to climate change
a letter to Greta Thunburg by Miguel Coma
Last Spring, after I spoke about the Internet’s footprint on a teleconference, I met Miguel Coma, a Belgian engineer. Thanks to the Internet, we have corresponded regularly and taught each other a lot about 5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks. The way he takes responsibility for his part of climate change really inspires me. Let me introduce you.
I’ve been a geek from the age of ten, when I started using and programming some of the first personal computers. I am 47 now. I am an engineer because I love technology, but living beings and nature also mean very much to me. I’m married, and I have three children, including two teenagers.
I was very lucky to be raised in a caring family with good values, however my parents did not teach me to think about the environment. At school, our planet’s future was never discussed, either. Meanwhile, I inherited my uncle’s passion for science and technology. I have always loved electronics, space exploration, astronomy, robots and supercomputers. Technology and science never bore me. (Chemistry does—nobody’s perfect.) Technology drives my will to understand and improve the world. Seeing the miracles that people can achieve when technology is used well gives me comfort.
In college, I learned how to build machines, systems and processes. I specialized in electronics and telecommunications. Whenever I talked with other engineers, we never discussed the ecological impacts of building, using or disposing of electronic devices. We focused on making attractive, reliable and affordable products and services. Innovation was all about technology, and only technology. As a student and then an engineer, working for the telecom industry (until twelve years ago), I never met experts in environmental or biological sciences.
At 33, I met my wife. She works for an environmental organisation. Through her, I started to realize the extent of environmental problems like global warming, pollution, e-waste and their impacts on living beings. I also started to connect with nature and got energized by observing tiny insects, flowers and the stars. (I have a telescope.) I increased my efforts to reduce our household’s waste, use renewable energy and buy energy efficient devices.
But I was still in the dark about problems caused by my own industry.
Then came the Covid-19 global pandemic. For the first time in my life, I had no job for several months. I used the time to do research. I remembered my wife telling me, in 2018, that she worried for our family’s health because of radiation emitted by 5G. At first, I considered the idea that 5G could harm us a conspiracy theory. My training taught me that only ionizing radiation is dangerous, and that exposure to the non-ionizing radiation levels used in telecommunications is perfectly safe. (Nonetheless, the industry recommends that mobile phone users keep a safe distance from their devices. Katie Singer and I will write about this in other letters. For now, you can read the fine print in your owner’s manual.)
I believe that technology should benefit our society. It should co-exist harmoniously with all living beings and ecosystems. But I have learned recently that technology can harm everything I care for, on a very large scale. Only a few years back, the odds that I would write to someone like you about re-thinking how to build the Internet would have been slim. Now, I want everyone to know 5G’s footprint. I want you to learn the key facts and have the widest possible picture about 5G so that you can make your own opinions. I encourage you to check and research the facts for yourself.
I researched 5G’s advantages and impacts—the applications it could make possible, the energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, worker hazards; its impacts to wildlife, public health, the economy and democracy. People call me a perfectionist. I wanted numerous viewpoints, so I cross-checked studies, reports and essays. I contacted scientists, engineers, non-profit associations, and even a philosopher.
As an engineer, I naturally started to read about 5G‘s technology and potential applications. Compared to 4G, 5G is designed to offer faster wireless connections. It aims to connect many more devices than 4G can, and, when necessary, to respond faster and more reliably. For mobile network operators as well, 5G means technical progress. The industry promotes 5G as a digital revolution, where every person and every device will be connected, enabling applications that we have not yet imagined. The industry claims that 5G will provide the backbone of a connectivity-based future economy.
But we already have billions of devices connected to the Internet. We call this the Internet of Things, and it is growing, rapidly, even without 5G. Moreover, alternative technologies already enable autonomous vehicles and tele-surgery, smart cities and more. To my surprise, I found publications from engineers, analysts and even a mobile operator who report that smartphone users are satisfied with 4G and will experience no substantial benefit from 5G. (The people who had the courage to reveal this give me courage.)
5G mainly stands to benefit large industries. For example, 5G can help robots use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to speed construction, modification, painting and the movement of parts along an assembly line. It could make some factory floors more efficient with nearly instantaneous interactions, and enable automated quality control. By replacing network cables and Wi-Fi with 5G, many more robots could connect in the same space. However, we do not need an extensive, public 5G network to connect a factory or other industries. Each manufacturer could have their own, private 5G network.
Unemployment, food insecurity, Covid-19, education, climate change and so many other issues already burden governments and taxpayers. Nevertheless, 5G manufacturers seeking higher profits are pressuring governments to facilitate the deployment of massive numbers of 5G antennas in every city and rural area. If consumers are already satisfied with 4G, and if industries can use a private 5G network, I wonder: given our global economic and environmental crises, is deployment of 5G public networks justified?
When I started looking at 5G’s environmental footprint, I had several shocks. First, I realized that the information-communication-technology (ICT) industry uses enormous and rapidly increasing amounts of electricity–and generates enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. And yet, neither I nor the experts I contacted could find a study about 5G’s energy use or greenhouse gas emissions.
I have to admit that I am part of the ICT industry. I helped create the problems. Remaining silent about my realizations would make me an even larger part of the problem. Because I am now aware that 5G could put a halt to the environmental progress you and others have made, I feel an urge to inform citizens around the world what I have learned, and to help find legal ways to limit the use of 5G to where it is truly required.
Greta, every bit of data that travels the Internet consumes energy. The more data used, the more energy consumed. While 5G will use less energy than 4G to transmit the same data (and so we can call 5G more energy efficient), 5G will consume about three times more electricity than 4G. 5G will use much shorter waves to transmit data faster. These waves do not travel far. So, they require millions of new radiation-emitting small antennas, located much closer to homes, schools and offices. Constructing millions of new antennas and billions of 5G compatible devices will require a long series of energy intensive processes, ranging from ore extraction to manufacturing of devices and infrastructure. Building a new, international network that operates in every city and rural area will create unimaginable amounts of greenhouse gases, toxic emissions, radiation and electronic waste.
In spite of the industry’s claims, 5G will not help to reduce climate change. It will speed it up. I will elaborate on this in future letters.
I’m an engineer, yes. Still, I want technology to respect wildlife, public health and the realities of climate change. I hope that as users of technology, we will learn the impacts of our digital purchases and usage so that we can take responsibility and reduce our digital footprint. I hope that governments and regulatory bodies will create ambitious policies that protect our environment and our health. This would be true progress for our society and next generations.
Miguel Coma is an engineer in telecommunications and an Information Technology architect. After a decade in telecommunications (with two mobile operators and an equipment manufacturer), he now works as an enterprise architect in the bank-insurance sector. He believes in technology’s potential to create sustainable progress.
Katie Singer writes about technology and nature. “An Electronic Silent Spring” is her most recent book. In 2018, she spoke about the Internet’s footprint at the United Nations. She dreams that every smartphone user knows the supply chain of one substance (of 1000+) in every smartphone.