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5G: A Genie at our Fingertips?

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Letter #10 5G: A Genie at our Fingertips?

A letter to Greta Thunberg and a dream

by Miguel Coma

Dear Greta,

Never before has my mind been so restless as I imagine our society's future. Humanity and our ecosystems are in the midst of profound changes. I had so many 'aha' moments in 2020. I realize that attempts to maintain a few people's privileges destroy our civilization; and, on the other hand, I feel extraordinary hope that everyone on Earth can have enough food, proper shelter and a meaningful, sustainable life. In this vision, we need wise choices for our health, environment and technology.

This leads me to 5G, the fifth generation of wireless telecommunication networks. My research shows that 5G is a corporate scheme. It would impair efforts to create a sustainable society. The more I learn about 5G, the more I dream of another kind of Internet. Today I will describe how 5G use would harm our planet and offer alternatives that would allow us to avoid it.

First, I want to tell a story of how a mobile Internet connection can take life and use energy. Then, I want to show you how to create more sustainable connectivity. The story stars a girl, a cat and a genie. (Geeks, watch out: I've got three hidden abbreviations here with definitions named below[1].)

Last winter, Pash was a kitten, chasing squirrels on an icy porch. One day, Jack, Pash's companion, captured her ice ballet on his phone and posted it on YouTube. Within hours, Pash was ranked most viewed kitten ever. Two weeks later, seven-and-a-half-year-old Altea sits in her dentist's waiting room. To relax, this girl is watching cute cat videos on her mum's smartphone. Meanwhile, NRgee, the genie, slumbers. NRgee can sleep for millions or even billions of years, curled up inside of tiny coal, gas or petroleum molecules. He can hide inside the even tinier nucleus of an atom, where there's room for lots of genies. Superpowers give NRgee abilities to travel inside vehicles like water, wind, sun rays or batteries; to transform into other forms; to travel at the speed of light and to live eternally. Plenty of clones can assist NRgee when he wants to satisfy his master. Under specific conditions, we mortals can summon NRgee.

Actually, young Altea has the power to summon NRgee at her fingertips. Just by tapping the touchscreen, she can wake the genie! Freed from a molecule in the smartphone's battery, NRgee transforms into electricity. In the blink of an eye, NRgee and his clones work all over the smartphone to get YouTube to stream "Pash the Kitten" onto Altea's mother's screen.

NRgee clones transform again, this time into microwaves from the smartphone's antenna. They radiate in all directions around Altea. Only a minuscule fraction of the clones make it to the cellular antenna. Most of the NRgee clones are lost. The lucky ones tell the cellular network that they need to reach YouTube's data centre as soon as possible, using an IP address. To deliver Altea's order to stream the cute cat video to YouTube, NRgee seeks help from more clones travelling the electric power grid and feeding the Internet's "highways." To assist, most genies will first leave their long slumber (from coal, natural gas, uranium, you name it) using an incredible human-made machine called a power plant.

Whenever a molecule containing carbon frees a genie, a reaction makes him fart carbon dioxide (CO2). Power plants using fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) or biomass use oxygen (O2) and emit CO2. So, these power plants do exactly the opposite of living plants. During photosynthesis, trees and flowers absorb CO2, emit O2 and capture NRgee from light to feed on it.

Back to Altea's command: when it reaches YouTube's data centre, other genies fly in, feed digital storage devices and servers, find Pash's video and send it to Altea's screen. Lots of NRgee genies are needed to carry the data-heavy video file and play the video for Altea before she goes to her dentist's chair.

Greta, to show you where NRgee genies are most needed in this story, I've got a pie chart. This one shows that when you stream a video using 4G (available today), the mobile access network uses more energy (60%) than the smartphone (30%) or the data centre (8%)[2]. The smartphone also uses significant energy to connect to the mobile network (3.7 times the microprocessor's energy[3]). The mobile network is composed of many parts and each consumes energy to operate[4,5].

Compared to all data shared or accessed using a mobile connection (for video, music, photos, websites, documents, posts, tweets, emails, texts, apps, etc.), video consumes the most data (63% and growing[6]) and the most energy. Video emits the most greenhouse gases and has the greatest impact on climate change. Then, although 5G is more energy efficient than 4G, it will cause a dramatic increase in energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions since it requires additional infrastructure and will increase data traffic. In 5G's era, video is expected to have a far greater footprint than it already has. (When I talk about video, I mean streaming, video-calling and messaging.)

I've got to admit that I love watching videos on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. But my priority is to reduce my carbon footprint. When I learned how much energy is involved in watching videos, I had to question my habit. Is it possible to reduce videos' energy demands and environmental impacts and still watch them?

It is possible! The key to a more sustainable Internet is to limit use of energy-guzzling mobile networks and rely on wired networks whenever possible.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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