5G, the tree hiding the wood?

In order for 5G to be compatible with environmental challenges, we need to start moving towards digital restraint now. If we give it this objective before it is deployed, another kind of 5G is possible. 

It will be happening after all... After being delayed due to the Covid-19 crisis, bidding for 5G will begin in France in September. This technology will open up a new world of possibilities, thanks to unprecedented reduction in latency and a huge increase in bandwidth.  

With emerging concerns about the environmental effects of 5G, raised in particular by mayors recently elected in France, a public discussion about the issue is necessary and healthy. However, we must avoid making it a two-sided discussion, divided into those for and against it. It should rather enable civil society to express the kind of 5G it wishes to see, as the transition to 5G comes with awareness of the digital industry's growing impact on the environment.   

Aiming for digital restraint  

The increasing number of relay antennas and the planned obsolescence of terminals brought about by 5G are causing opponents to ring the alarm bell. However, the strongest argument involves data usage: because it offers improved connectivity, 5G will increase our data consumption. This consumption increase may well have the largest impact on the environment. The equipment manufacturer Ericsson estimates that the average 5G network user will consume 200 GB of data per month in 2025, which is far greater than the 6.7 GB currently consumed by 4G users in France.  

The discussion that has begun should not lead us to simply reject 5G out of hand, but rather to question our relationship with digital and find ways to optimise data consumption, in order to collectively achieve digital restraint. This is particularly true given that the ARCEP (France's telecommunications regulator) has already observed an increase in the amount of data used by French citizens year on year.   

The idea of restraint, defined as 'moderate behaviour' or 'self control', is not well understood when it comes to digital technology. To draw a parallel with cars, motorways and powerful engines make it possible to drive at 125 mph, but this does not mean that it is a good idea to do so. In the same way that vehicle speed has been regulated for reasons of road safety, with the advent of 5G, legislators should think about regulating excessive data use for environmental reasons.  

Unfortunately, it is this issue of data use that is the furthest down the road and the main source of concerns. It is these new uses, though, that should be driving forward the solutions to help us bring our digital consumption back into balance. Faced with the climate emergency, it is absolutely necessary to maintain controlled energy use as a target for the deployment of 5G.  

Catalysing innovation to create the conditions for resilient use 

This target needs to be defined now. The slow schedule for deployment of 5G means stakeholders will have time to come up with innovations that support this societal project. Sébastien Soriano, President of the ARCEP is fully aligned with this view and explains that we “absolutely have the time to create the conditions needed for green 5G, green networks and green digital.”  It is up to us – citizens, associations and companies – to express our expectations, as well as to put forward proposals and innovate to create resilient use of 5G.

This objective should be shared by all and companies in particular. They have a singular responsibility in this discussion, as they will be the main users of this technology. They should move towards controlled energy use and integrate environmental considerations in each project: in return, this deep-seated transformation will enhance their ability to innovate.  5G promises systemic transformation and it is exactly for this reason that it has the potential to meet environmental expectations.

The transition to 5G is an invitation for us to think about the environmental effects of digital, but it should also encourage us to imagine what the digital of tomorrow could do for the environment. How about the environmental costs of remote working and the increasing number of videoconferences, for example? Our data consumption has significantly increased in this area, but it has been compensated for many times over by the reduction in travel.  

In the field of digital, voices are speaking out to promote eco-design and what is known as 'green IT'. From the outset, IT systems need to be designed to be sustainable and less data hungry. Taking this idea further, we could also imagine “unplugging” energy-hungry systems (such as a data centre with low energy efficiency or a poorly optimised computer language), in order to replace them with more environmentally friendly systems.

This reasoning is leading French policymakers to think about ending 2G and 3G.  5G should not be deployed to the detriment of environmental protection, which is an absolute priority today. However, it is not incompatible with this requirement and can even be a source of solutions. The crucial thing will be to integrate environmental considerations as soon as it is deployed and to innovate in order to come up with virtuous uses.   

Published in La Tribune