The 5G Privilege

Season 5: Episode 5

‘5G’ is a new buzzword floating around every corner of the internet. But what exactly is this hyped-up cellular network, often referred to as the next technological evolution in mobile internet communications? Will it really be 100 times faster than what we have now? What will it make possible that has never been possible before? Who will reap the benefits? And, who will get left behind?

Mike Thelander at Signals Research Group imagines the wild ways 5G might change our lives in the near future. Rhiannon Williams hits the street to test drive a new 5G network. Amy France lives in a very rural part of Kansas — she dreams of the day that true, fast internet could come to her farm (but isn’t holding her breath). Larry Irving explains why technology has never been provided equally to everyone, and why he fears 5G will leave too many people out. Shireen Santosham, though, is doing what she can to leverage 5G deployment in order to bridge the digital divide in her city of San Jose.

Published: August 12, 2019

Show Notes

Read more about Rhiannon Williams’ 5G tests throughout London.

And, find out more about San Jose’s smart city vision that hopes to bridge the digital divide.


Manoush Z: You may have heard this buzzword floating around the Internet lately: “5G” - 5G as in fifth generation. It’s the next technological evolution in mobile internet communications. A completely new network for anyone who accesses the Internet on their smartphone or other wireless device. boosters of the new tech say It could be a hundred times faster than what we have available now and with speeds like that, people are imagining all kinds of things we might be able to do with this hyped up new network.

Mike T: I was talking with a power company in California. Obviously you have lots of fires that take place in California. Power lines fall down. It creates a fire. It’s devastating.

Manoush Z: Mike Thelander works at signals research. He’s a consultant for telecom companies.

Mike T: Now imagine if you had sensors all on a 5G network that could sense when that the pole is falling down and actually turn off the power before the line hits the ground. That would be phenomenal.

Manoush Z: That would be cool. Wouldn’t it? See a 5G network has more bandwidth, more space to handle more connections. So you can make a lot more tiny devices each with an embedded 5G chip and add them to a network. Think Internet of things on 5G steroids.

Mike T: Imagine a factory that is fully controlled by sensors and other devices all running on a 5G network where it requires not necessarily fast data speeds or high amounts of data, but it requires very high reliability.

Manoush Z: Mike also thinks a 5G network could usher in an era of truly autonomous vehicles.

Mike T: Now obviously that technology exists today, but it’s all each vehicle for itself. Now imagine a world where these vehicles can talk to each other. These cars can talk to infrastructure on the side of the road. They can talk to pedestrians, they can warn a pedestrian that they’re coming up behind them. So it really takes your autonomous driving to a whole new nother realm in terms of both efficiency as well as safety.

Manoush Z: What else can Mike dream up? Well, let’s say you needed very specialized surgery, but the best doctor for the job is thousands of miles away.

Mike T: So you could imagine having a doctor or you know, performing an operation on a patient in a distant city. What 5G is providing is the communications link to ensure that that doctor, if he’s moving his hands and using, you know, AR/VR type technology that he can sense the patient in real time.

Manoush Z: That’s right. You could be in a hospital room in one part of the country while a surgeon on the other side of the country using a 5G connected medical room could save your life. It’ll be so fast, the physician will feel like they’re right there with you. If 5G lives up to the expectations, then even something more mundane as are run to the grocery store could change dramatically.

Mike T: So let’s imagine you walk into your local Walmart and your Costco and you obviously see signs advertising what’s on sale. Now imagine you have on say a pair of Google goggles. You know, and your goggles have little pop up windows that only you can see because it’s augmented reality and they could point out things in the store that might be of interest to you. To me. That sounds exciting.

Manoush Z: It certainly does sound exciting. The hype around 5G and there is a lot of it suggests that there is nothing, it can’t make better. Again, boosters argue it will bring a revolutionary new internet to everyone. That 5G cell towers will get more people online than ever before and if so, maybe those dreamy kind of science fictiony ideas will reach everyone in just a few years. Look beyond the hype though and you start to see how 5G also brings its share of problems. For one, it may be that 5G will privilege the few and not the many. If 5G really can change the world, then who gets to live in that world? I’m Manoush Zomorodi and this is IRL, an original podcast from Firefox. Firefox believes everyone has the right to be online, whether on their computer or on their phone. It’s mobile browser lets you search privately. It blocks ads you don’t want to see and it’s lightening fast and saving you both time and precious data. Look up on your mobile device and try the browser that’s on your side.

Okay, so what’s so different about 5G that makes it so special anway? Let me unpack this for you with a bit of tech talk. It comes down to three things. First, like I said, the data can travel super fast. Imagine downloading an entire season of your favorite show on your phone in a matter of seconds. Next, there’s no latency, no really detectable delay between sending and receiving commands. That’s what would make remote surgery possible. And third, it has massive capacity. The bandwidth it transmits on is wider than what we currently use. It can handle significantly more traffic. But 5G does have a downside. It has terrible range. All wireless signals can be affected by interference, a building, a wall, a microwave, and so on. But 5G signal is especially sensitive. It’s more vulnerable to interruption. The good rainfall would be enough to block it. And the way that you fix that is by installing more antennas closer together to boost the signal. The small cells can be about the size of a backpack or even just a little bit bigger. Stick these cells a few hundred feet apart from each other and you can build a robust network. 5G networks are rapidly coming online around the world. South Korea, China, Britain, the U.S. these countries are the early adopters. Over in London, British telecom company EE switched on its first 5G network in April.

Rhiannon W: Hello, my name is Rhiannon Williams on the technology correspondent for the I-newspaper in London.

Manoush Z: Rhiannon has been field testing the speed of the new 5G network, and we asked her to test it specifically for us. We wanted to know if it lives up to the hype.

Rhiannon W: I’m just getting up my stop watch here.

Manoush Z: So Rhiannon’s going to test the 5G speed by downloading a show from Netflix. First she’ll try it on a 4G smartphone. Then on a 5G one

Rhiannon W: It does seem quite slow out here today, so I don’t think we’re going to see anything too spectacular, but it’s worth a check to see.

Manoush Z: Rhiannon’s previous tests varied wildly from speeds, marginally better than 4G to speeds that actually did live up to the hype of 5G.

Rhiannon W: It’s quite clear indication of how much these speeds will vary. Sometimes seeing, you know, speeds of around 650 megabytes per second and then other times it’s topping out around 50 there’s a huge difference and a lot of the networks in the UK are saying that it is going to take a while for the speeds to stabilize.

Manoush Z: It’s a new network with new technology, so it does come with growing pains.

Rhiannon W: Oh, looks like 4G is almost finishing up now. Okay, that’s completed at four minutes and three seconds.

Manoush Z: Four minutes and three seconds to download an episode using a 4G smartphone. It’s kind of network most of us already use.

Rhiannon W: Right? Let’s try it on 5G. Okay, so it’s got to be four minutes and three seconds though, which is pretty lengthy. That’s one of the longer times I’ve seen while testing.

Manoush Z: While we’re waiting Rhiannon wonders if this technology is even worth the price.

Rhiannon W: Here in the UK your average data plan for 5G starts around 50 pounds a month. There’s not, not incredibly cheap, 50 pounds, roughly 65 U.S. dollars a month. Plus you’re going to need that new phone. How interested are consumers in paying this much money? You know download speeds are one thing, but will the majority of people sort of care enough to jump on the bandwagon straight away? I mean probably not. Okay, so the episode is finally finished downloading on 5G at four minutes and 34 seconds. So there you go. Is actually slower than 4G. Just going to play your little clip of that now.

Speaker 1: Great.

Manoush Z: Wait, it’s slower on this test that on 4G? Far from the promise of being able to download an entire season of a show in seconds. Clearly this 5G network for now anyway does not quite deliver on its promise. To be fair. This single non scientific experiment that we conducted with Rhiannon isn’t enough on its own to say that London’s new 5G network is a total bust, but it does showcase the contrast between marketing and the current reality.

Rhiannon W: So in conclusion at the moment, 5g in the UK is probably a little bit over hyped compared to what consumers actually want.

Manoush Z: Nevertheless, Rhiannon says eventually 5G will overtake her city.

Rhiannon W: And we will probably completely forget that download speeds were as an inverted commerce slow as they were over a 4G connection. So the ever marching, relentless marching onwards suite of technology continues.

Manoush Z: Okay. So London’s network is a work in progress. This is brand new technology and it takes a lot of equipment and it’s expensive, but densely populated cities like London are prime targets for 5G because you can build networks faster, there’s more people that you can reach more quickly. If you don’t live in a city though, it’s unlikely that you will get 5G anytime soon. Perhaps never. That discrepancy is already a problem and there’s a name for it. The digital divide - 5G risks making it worse.

Amy F: I was listening to President Trump address farmers and ranchers and ethanol plant workers and things like that and he mentioned 5G and I would love to have that.

Manoush Z: Amy France lives in a very, very rural part of western Kansas in the U.S. Her phone reception isn’t great

Amy F: For me it’s always interesting to let people know my nearest Walmart or McDonald’s is an hour away.

Manoush Z: She lives on and runs a farm alongside her husband and kids.

Amy F: We have wheat, corn, soybeans and sorghum, and then we also have a cattle, so we have mamas and babies.

Manoush Z: Like lots of people in rural areas, Amy and her family have basic internet - broadband in their case, but it’s not that good.

Amy F: My cell phone does not work down at my house, but I can do wifi calling in and jump onto that, but when I jump onto my phone, that usually means my kids, if they’re doing anything, they’re watching anything on Netflix that usually stops or buffers until I get done with my conversation.

Manoush Z: Amy says, this is frustrating for everyone. Even if as a parent, poor connectivity has its benefits too.

Amy F: I have two teenage daughters and I’ve really figured out that it works to my advantage because at a certain time I just turn our internet off and voila they can disconnect whether they like it or not.

Manoush Z: When it’s time to running the business, it’s much more than frustrating for Amy.

Amy F: Absolutely. It definitely plays a significant role.

Manoush Z: Take harvest time for instance, when the grain is ready to sell and he gets online to find buyers, the price for grain is always changing though. So she needs to watch the market and be ready to sell at just the right moment. Sometimes though when that moment hits the Internet fails.

Amy F: So we set different levels where if we hit a certain price then we want to take part in that. And so I got notification that that was happening. So I came into my office, I knew what I wanted to lock in and I got the little like caution triangle and my the bottom right hand corner of my screen. And I was like, what is this? So I ran back, I reset my router. I waited for it to reboot nothing. So I hopped in my car and I drove about two, three miles to get good cell phone service. And by the time I was able to get good cell phone service, the price had gone back down. So it was literally like through my fingers.

Manoush Z: Amy and her family are caught in the digital divide and like many families living far away from cities, they’re constantly behind the curve on internet technology. And the reason is simple for companies providing Internet service, she’s not worth the investment.

Amy F: Where I am on the tower that my broadband posts from, there’s only maybe three or four people pulling from it. So it’s not, you know, it doesn’t make sense for them to put a lot of money into that for just a few of their rural customers.

Manoush Z: So when Amy, her President Trump mentioned 5G, she couldn’t help but wonder what it could possibly do for her, her family and her business.

Amy F: But I’m not going to get my hopes up, but we can dream that someday we can watch something and talk on the phone at the same time.

Manoush Z: There are lots of reasons why the digital divide persists. It can be financial, like my family can’t afford it or sometimes it’s an issue of literacy, like I don’t understand why I even need it. For others still like Amy France and her family. The infrastructure simply isn’t there.

Larry I: There has never been a technology in America that has been provided to all Americans that’s even close to the same amount of time.

Manoush Z: This is Larry Irving, he’s the CEO of the Irving group. He co founded the mobile alliance for global good and he’s long been an advocate for bridging the digital divide and he thinks the 5G divide won’t only be an urban rural issue.

Larry I: So cities are going to get 5g over the next few years. And the question is who in those cities gets access to 5g first, right? Is it going to be downtown? It’s going to be everybody can be just the bright, rich people, just poor people. How do we do this? And here’s what’s really weird…what we found out in wireless technology, if you ever, if you ever looked at commercials for computers, the people in computer commercials almost always look like, you know, kind of middle class white people and that’s who they are marketing to. Some genius in wireless technology figured out that black people and brown people and people in inner cities really loved their mobile devices. And so if you watch apple or t-mobile or at and t, Verizon mobile commercials, they’re much more reflective of all of America because there’s a lot of money to be made by, you know, there are trillions of dollars of spending power of blacks and browns, but the folks who deploy these networks aren’t necessarily the people who understand that wireless technologies are really attractive to people who, you know, don’t have other forms of entertainment or who may not have, you know, a big home, but they do want to watch Netflix on their mobile device.

So there’s this whole question of whether or not latent discriminatory practices are gonna come up to 5G, how that all is going to unravel is unknown.

Manoush Z: There are some people who say that focusing so much on 5G and getting so excited about the potential for it actually distracts from another conversation that needs to have, which is that the telecoms communications have not given these communities rural or inner city broadband that they have reneged on their, their promises to connect all of these communities and now we’re just kicking the can down the road and being like, well, okay, so forget about that. Let’s just talk 5G. What do you say to that?

Larry I: If I’m looking at rural, I think it’s imperative that we get a functioning affordable level of wireless Internet service to rural America and that’s not going to be 5G in the near term and I think it’s insulting to the intelligence of any thinking American to say that 5G is a solution for rural America. Every time I asked the question in any venue to anybody who knows anything about 5G or the laws of physics, they’ll say, yeah, Larry, you kind of right. You know, this is just marketing talk

I’m still somewhat of an optimist with regard to technology. I do think you can do good things if deployed correctly. So making investments in 5G, building out this infrastructure where it’s affordable makes sense, but making sure that it’s not just a technology for the affluent and making sure that we’re not red lining the poor and the elderly and the single moms and the new immigrants. That’s something I think that policy makers should be insuring.

Manoush Z: Okay, so Larry Irving believes that 5G does have potential promise, but he doesn’t think it brings that promise to everyone. He’s not alone in thinking that, but there are examples of cities who are trying to kind of play it both ways to get ahead of this problem.

Shireen S: My name is Shireen Santoshamand I’m the chief innovation officer for the Mayor Sam Liccardo in San Jose.

Manoush Z: San Jose is in the heart of Silicon Valley. That tech rich hub of America that drives huge amounts of internet innovation. So naturally the city is on board with 5G.

Shireen S: We are in the midst of the largest 5G deployment in the country. So we went and negotiated with a wonderful team here with the carriers, the telecom carriers, and we will be deploying 4,200 small cells across our city, laying hundreds of miles of fiber across the city to upgrade all of our digital infrastructure. And we’ll be one of the first trench of cities getting to 5G.

Manoush Z: But even in San Jose, the digital divide exists.

Shireen S: As the largest city in silicon valley. We’ve found about 95,000 residents, which is close to 10% of our city is not connected in San Jose. In larger cities, it’s mostly because of the cost of services. So for example, in the survey that we did, over 60% of our low income residents said they couldn’t afford a $10 a month plan.

Manoush Z: So if 10% of the population can’t afford even basic internet now, how could they possibly afford a premium 5G connection? Shireen realizes this is a big challenge.

Shireen S: And so in fact what we think is going to happen is it will deepen the digital divide because those who are connected and are getting better and better services will speed ahead while those who are on the wrong side will just slip farther behind. So here’s what Shireen in San Jose are doing about it. They’ve made a deal with the carriers who are building the 5G network. The city is earning revenue from that deployment and they’re investing that money right back into the community. We took the revenues that we’re getting from these telecommunication companies and we’ve repurposed them into $24 million digital inclusion fund for the city to connect about 50,000 households to the Internet as well as skill up our residents in digital skills so that they can really be part of the Silicon Valley economy.

Manoush Z: It’s no silver bullet, but they will be able to use the money in all kinds of different ways. Really what we think about as a silver buckshot. And so part of this we’ll be working on getting low cost plans to people in need, working with our community organizations, partnering with telecommunication companies. We have very ambitious goals around digital literacy.

Shireen S: I think that now is the time to solve the problem and really take a good look at the digital divide. If we don’t solve it now, then we will be looking at even greater social inequality in the future. And so it’s not too late, but it is urgent.

Manoush Z: The U.S. rollout of 5G is often framed as a race, a race to dominate the world with this technology before another country does. And this race is usually framed between China and the U.S. China has a lead on the tech required for 5G, mainly from a Chinese company called Huawei. The U.S. says, 5G equipment from China poses a security and surveillance risk. They’ve restricted American companies from doing business with Huawei and urged other countries to do the same. Back at home, there’s a lot more politics going on too. Like that deal that San Jose made with the telecom companies, other US cities don’t have that kind of leverage anymore. The federal communications commission, the FCC changed the rules on the entire process. They say it’s to speed up five G deployment across the country. Keep it from getting bogged down. The bright, bold, incredible future of 5G might be around the corner, but even if it arrived soon, a 5g rollout probably won’t get to tens of millions of people in countries all over the world who have trouble getting online already. Once again, these people like Amy France, the farmer in western Kansas, we’ll be left out.

Amy F: I hope we keep moving forward and I would love to see, you know, the same access all across the board. And until then, we’ll continue to adapt. But look forward to the day that I can tell you in my speeds are through the roof.

Manoush Z: I’m Manouzh Zomorodi. This is IRL. Online life is real life. An original podcast from Firefox.