Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation

5G and 6G networks: Social and environmental implications of hyper-connectivity

Barcellona 07.09.2022 Cristina Cano Bastidas e Hug March Corbella Translated by: Jpic-jp.org

Over the past two years, intensive work has been done to deploy 5G (or 5th generation networks) in several countries around the world. Limited versions of this mobile network technology have been deployed so far, but it is expected to reach its full potential soon. While mobile operators are still deploying it, the vision of what 6G networks should look like is already beginning to emerge. This new generation could be operational in 10 years, taking over 5G, in the same way as its predecessor generations have been doing.

The techno-optimistic vision

Both 5G and 6G represent a technological leap forward aimed at increasing global hyper- connectivity, not only for people, but also for the objects around us.

These networks will enable technological breakthroughs to give us a deeper experience of our online lives: that we can, for example, transmit touch, or representations of our bodies through holography or even the impulses of our brains. They will make it possible for everything around us to be virtually interconnected.

The goal: to make our industries, agriculture, energy production, logistics and transport more efficient, to make life in our homes easier, and to open up new business models.

In the most techno-optimistic imaginations, there is talk of the positive effect that hyper-connectivity will have, with digitalisation and artificial intelligence, in the search for (technological) solutions to the multiple environmental crises we are living through, above all, a more efficient use of resources.

The hyper connectivity environmental cost

However, this techno-optimistic vision is missing something. When we think of hyper-connectivity and the exponential growth of data transmission and processing that this vision promotes, it is difficult to see the material impact it entails.

On the one hand, the impact at different geographical scales (far from the points where these technologies are implemented and benefit from them) and on the other hand at different temporalities (e.g. future generations).

The energy and emissions issue is central in this respect. The increasing implementation of new technologies goes hand in hand with an increase in total energy consumption.

In a context of climate emergency and energy crisis

It is urgent to take into account the energy consumption involved in keeping the necessary telecommunication networks infrastructure and data centres operational, and serving an increasingly exacerbated consumption. This is even more important in the context of a climate emergency, when we are immersed in a convulsive energy market and with increasingly conflictive energy geopolitics.

From the technology sector, there is confidence that new energy efficiency techniques will reduce consumption even as data demand increases. It remains to be seen whether these techniques will be able to offset the expected increase in demand.

But, the impact is not just a question of energy or direct greenhouse gas emissions. More antennas, more mobiles, more interfaces mean more demand for rare earths and minerals and more waste.

More and more base stations, more antennas and more data processing equipment will be needed. In addition, the applications driving the development of these technologies promote the acquisition of new user devices, such as mobile phones compatible with the new network generations, virtual reality glasses, brain-machine interfaces and haptic or tactile extensions, among others.

Manufacturing all these new infrastructures implies more pressure on the extraction of materials, including rare earths and other minerals, more production, more transport and more waste for which recycling is complicated. In addition to the geopolitical consequences, local conflicts and unequal distribution of wealth and costs that this entails should be taken in account.

The necessary democratic debate

In the face of the fragile global socio-ecological situation, on the verge of exceeding or having already exceeded some of the planetary boundaries, we need to critically rethink the need for unlimited growth in data consumption.

Can we, as a society, think of alternatives to the demand for more (digital) connectivity and (data) speed? Perhaps we can start by bridging the digital divide, without creating new demands for ever more consumption and ever more speed.

Clearly, this requires a democratic debate that should not be dominated by market impositions. At the same time, in contrast to the more techno-optimistic discourses, it is necessary to assess the impact of technological solutions focused on mitigating environmental crises, taking into account the increase in demand for data and the need for equipment and new digital infrastructures required for their implementation.

We need to start considering equipment and digital infrastructures as a scarce commodity, with important material and energy implications.

To alleviate the increasing pressure on the extraction, production, distribution of materials and equipment, as well as the management of technological waste, we need to reduce planned obsolescence, increase modularity and extensibility of hardware, as well as future-proof design.

These directions of change are not only technological, but involve political and social interventions. It is important to democratise the debates on digitisation, and specifically on 5G/6G, to avoid technological development being dictated only by market logic.

It is the task of civil society, academia and citizens in general to imagine other possible futures that do not involve the imperative of unlimited growth in digital consumption.

See, Redes 5G y 6G: Las implicaciones sociales y ambientales de la hiperconectividad que se avecina

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The comments from our readers (1)

Margaret Henderson 15.11.2022 I also had not realised that the upgrading of 5G and 6G networks will lead to an increase in total energy consumption and in the use of rare resources. I for one am so convinced by the article that I don’t think that upstanding ought to go ahead …. but realise that the voices of businesses are very powerful and there will be little chance of getting them to consider that they are adding to the climate crisis. Very sad.