The Potential of 5G From a Sustainability Perspective

The era of SMS texting on a small Nokia brick phone is long behind us. Yet this was the beginning of mobile communication that evolved into how we know it today.

1G and 2G allowed us to communicate via text and phone calls. When 3G came along, we could use the internet on our mobile phones (what a concept!). And 4G finally brought the internet speed we have today. With it we can watch Youtube videos while on the train to work, or upload an Instagram photo during our coffee break.

But 4G is starting to reach its limits. A congestion on 4G infrastructures is slowing down our connection and preventing more devices from gaining access to one.

This is why we are entering a new generation of mobile communication: 5G is quickly becoming the cellular network standard.

What’s possible with 5G?

5G allows for 1000 times more traffic than 4G and is 10 times faster, because it enables bigger channels. It also has a lower latency, which means that it’s more responsive and reliable.

But speed and reliability isn’t all it can do. 5G lets us connect more devices at the same time. This could lead to smart homes, and many other innovations across industries.

We will see a digital transformation in many businesses because they can create smarter products and services.

At the moment you have to be in the right city and own the right mobile phone to enjoy the benefits of 5G. And due to COVID-19 there are delays in 5G rollout which vary between regions, but it won’t be long until we reach wider accessibility.

5G and sustainability

There are contradicting arguments around 5G and its impact on the environment.
Global emissions can be reduced by up to 15% by 2030 with technologies like 5G and IoT, according to a study.

On the other hand 5G demands a lot of power – more than twice the amount of 4G. As more digitalisation occurs globally and 5G becomes more widely accessible, we need to carefully consider how the infrastructure of this technology is set up. And we need to ask ourselves: are we doing more good or more damage to the environment with it?

To answer this question we need to wait and see, because even experts are unclear if there is a long-term environmental impact of 5G deployment.

Energy use cases and 5G

Our energy consumption is the biggest source of human-cause greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 73% worldwide.

Therefore it’s crucial to find ways to create new sources of energy (e.g renewable energy), and make our energy usage more efficient. The latter can be achieved with the help of 5G technology.

From the perspective of power supply, 5G can help distribute energy faster and more efficiently.

Data can be collected faster which helps smart sensors know when to distribute or redistribute power and in what amount. This results in a secure and stable power supply.

Smart meters will enter our homes. They replace our existing gas and electricity meters, and will automatically send meter readings directly to your energy suppliers. They come with a small monitor which enables you to monitor the energy consumption across your home and make smarter choices as a result. They are already existing in homes but will become more widespread and efficient with 5G. This could (massively) improve global energy usage in our households.

A boost for the ‘work from home’ culture

Picture: Bench

The work from home culture has received a big boost recently due to the global pandemic. However we also realised a need for faster, more reliable internet connection if we want to have quality remote meetings.
The increasing accessibility of 5G could make this possible. Not only will more people have a solid internet connection, it will also be faster and improve employees’ productivity.

Imagine never having to wait for anything to load again…

A few weeks ago Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that all Twitter and Square employees can continue to work from home ‘forever’ if they wish to, even after offices start to reopen.
This is a bold move, but set an example for more companies who adopted a similar policy. As a result of this we could see a complete shift in our work life.

Working from home is more sustainable since less people will commute to and from the office for 2+ hours everyday. We could also see less people catching a flight to another city for a one hour meeting, for example. And we save energy, since offices demand a large supply of energy and electricity to heat or cool rooms, and keep appliances running even when they’re not used.

While remote work won’t be possible for all industries (such as nurses, mechanics or hospitality workers), it is possible that through COVID-19, people are becoming more aware of their travel behaviours. They consciously ask themselves when travelling is necessary and when it is not, and this can already have a big impact on our emission levels.

5G creating change across industries

5G’s potential is endless and even experts are not yet certain how it will all unfold.
However one thing is clear: it will disrupt many industries, including the following examples below.

Education: better AR/VR experiences, could help teachers to develop new education techniques. Field trips to the Amazon rainforest or ancient Greece could become possible for example.

Transportation: More IoT cellular connections will be using 5G and could therefore give smart cities a chance. This helps cities gain access to real-time, end-to-end visibility into their transportation systems.

Supply chain management: installing 5G-enabled IoT sensors on products could easily make a large amount of data available to stakeholders in the supply chain in real time.

Critique against 5G

Even though 5G brings about big opportunities for innovation, we also need to consider the challenges of this new technology.

According to experts 5G might also have a security risk.

5G will disrupt connectivity, more specifically Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity. This can expand the scope of security threats such as ransomware and botnets.

Francis Dinha, CEO of OPENVPN said in an article for The Verge: “No matter what equipment we use for 5G, there will be security risks. With such an exponentially higher amount of data, there will inherently be an exponentially higher risk.”

These security challenges need to be acknowledged and addressed as 5G continues to roll out.

Francis Dinha also said: “Rather than relying on our network to be secure, we ought to seriously consider building an overlay secure virtual network across the 5G infrastructure that could provide end-to-end security, controlled and managed by the 5G network operators.”

There is still a lot of uncertainty around 5G, but it will be interesting to see how it develops over the next year. Which statements will turn out to be true? And can it help to solve some of our pressing sustainability issues?

by Kim Fischer