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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 16-21

Invited Lecture 14: From insight to foresight? Some Lessons for 5G from other “new” technologies & agents

Visiting Fellow, Institute of Environment, Health and Societies, Brunel University

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2468-838X.303753

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Brief Biosketch Prof.David GEE graduated in economics and politics and since 1974 has been working at the interface of science and policy-making, within occupational and environmental health, for trade unions, NGOs, and governmental organisations. He is a former Director of Friends of the Earth, in the UK. Between 1995-2012 he worked at the European Environment Agency, latterly as Senior Advisor on Science, Policy and Emerging Issues. Among many other projects eg on eco-tax reform and eco-efficiency, David has been the catalyst, EEA editor and the author of a chapter for the two volumes of Late lessons from early warnings published by the EEA (2001 and 2013). He is now Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Environment, Health, and Societies, Brunel University, London. He is one of the UNESCO/UNITWIN Coordinators under UNESCO Chair Life Sciences (Biophysics, Biotechnology and Environmental Health). Summary of Points for the UNESCO Webinar on 5G & Covid-19, August 7th 2020. The points below are confined to 5G (not Cov-19) and are based on the histories of 27 other “new” technologies, chemicals and other agents over the last 100 or so years, and their now well-established harms, as chronicled in the two volumes of “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” (EEA, 2001, 2013)1. The reports provide insights that can help policymakers to apply foresight with new technologies like 5G to minimise possible harms. There are many (18) striking similarities between RFR/5G and most of the technologies and agents featured in the “Late Lessons” case studies: these are briefly illustrated in Part A below. Some (6) features of 5G that are somewhat novel, and which are also challenging for policymakers are briefly noted in Part B. Some 49 References provide sources of the evidence cited. Part A. Some similarities between 5G and other once “new” technologies/agents. 1) Much hubristic hype surrounded the introduction of the new technology or agent. For example, asbestos was dubbed the “magic mineral”; leaded petrol was the “gift from God”; X-rays were used to provide “the scientific way to fit shoes”; and nuclear power was said to be “too cheap to meter”. This hype served to dull the critical faculties of the relevant regulators and policymakers during the early decades. The early history of X-Rays, another source of radiation exposure to people, is particularly relevant to 5G: “the excitement in the scientific community, and the often inappropriate publicity, ensured that the damage to health, particularly in the long term, was not given any prominence”.2 With 5G, “marketing hype is widespread” (Ref 3). For that, and other reasons, recent advice to Developing Countries' leaders from even Telecommunications experts warns against prematurely joining the “race to 5G”. For example: “Planning for 5G is a series of complicated choices as there are issues at the levels of creating ecosystems to support it; unproven business models, with claims for applications which may not be financially viable yet; plus confusion over choices of radio spectrum; and selection of equipment suppliers; even potential issues over public health, as well as the real level of industrial and consumer demand beyond the hype”. The emphasis here is on the importance of making balanced strategic choices, by identifying the basic issues, in a 'realpolitik' fashion - including “why embrace 5G at all”.3 2) There was a failure to systematically and independently scrutinise the claimed benefits and costs (and the non-quantifiable pros and cons) of the new technology/agents. In most of the EEA case studies both the costs of the “new” technology and its later harms were often underestimated, whilst the benefits were often overestimated4, usually because most of the cost/benefit analyses (CBAs) were done by the technology promoters themselves. 5G is costing much more than 2-4G; it needs substantial government support; and its estimated costs are very likely to escalate, partly because it is a more complicated system to roll out than 2-4 G. Another “late Lesson” comes from the relatively simple roll-out of smart meters which already demonstrates the ease with which forecasted costs escalate and benefits diminish. The UK National Audit Office report on “Smart Meters”5 observed that the cost of installing smart meters was already 50 % higher by 2017 than the BEIS Department's initial forecast; and that “it is currently uncertain whether the industry cost savings forecast by the Department will materialise”. One key and unresolved cost/con of 5G, which is acknowledged by some in the telecommunications industry, is the increased security risk. This is “much more complicated to manage…the challenge is amplified by vertical 5G use-cases such as connected cars and health care”….5G's shared infrastructure has the potential for mass failure across multiple networks”.6 3) There was an early closing down of promising alternative technologies, such as alcohol-based petrol instead of leaded petrol. Alternatives for 5G include wired systems; photonics; and visible light communications, plus more exploitation of the relatively recent 3/4G systems. 4) There was a gross imbalance between research on developing/promoting the agent/technology and research on anticipating and reducing potential harm to people and environments from the agent/technology. For example, the BSE case shows that relevant hazard identification research was overly delayed7. For Information Technologies an EEA analysis of EU research funding 2007-20138 clearly demonstrated this heavy bias towards research on technology promotion (99.95%) compared to hazard anticipation (0.05%). There is very little research available on 4 and 5G. And the EEA case studies demonstrate that “no eviden

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