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  • Thierry Spanjaard

5G and COVID-19: the luddites are back!

While the COVID-19 epidemic is affecting our lives, our health, and economies worldwide, opponents to technologies and activists are jumping on the current uncertainty to try and get public attention. However, besides these knee-jerk reactions, the current difficulties in decision making and the upcoming global recession undoubtedly affect 5G deployment.

As social media posts circulated showing a link between 5G deployment and the ongoing pandemic, either saying simply that 5G causes the COVID-19 infection or that using higher frequencies weakens the immune system making people more susceptible to infection, some activists in the UK set fire to at least 20 mobile network antennas and base stations threatening network operations, that are critical in times of crisis.

The UK’s four mobile operators, the GSMA and the British government had to publish reactions stating that “the apparent evidence being circulated [was] completely fabricated.” In addition, GSMA director general Mats Granryd added: “it is deplorable that critical communications infrastructure is being attacked based on outright mistruths. We urge everyone to trust health authorities and rest assured communications technology is safe. There is no link between 5G and Covid-19.” In a joint statement, EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three sought to reassure the public claims being made were baseless and highlighted the important role of mobile and fixed networks during the ongoing pandemic and lockdown measures, according to Mobile World Live.

This even escalated to the ITU, the International Telecommunication Union, which issued a statement saying it “stands on the side of science and makes it clear that such claims have no scientific basis whatsoever.”

All reactions against technology changes remind us of the luddite movement, named after activist Ned Ludd, back in the XIXth century when textile workers destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest against the progress of machines that would threaten their existing jobs. Luddites feared that new machines would be operated by low-wages unskilled laborers thus threatening the jobs and lives of formerly indispensable skilled workers.

However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown measures already threaten 5G plans.

The GSMA, which had anticipated that 5G would reach mass-market adoption in 2020 after the technology had been standardized in 2018 and the first commercial rollouts happened in 2019, is now resetting its plans. Moreover, work on 5G standards is also affected: the 3GPP, a global association responsible for standardizing mobile communications, has confirmed that it would delay work on Stage 3 of Release 16, and, more worryingly, announced that Release 17 would also be delayed. The two releases were set to establish the final standards for standalone (SA) 5

G networks, industrial IoT devices and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2X) systems, as well as other 5G system architectures. Stage 3 will not be frozen as a standard before September 2021, thus limiting the addition of new functions.

Frequency auctions are delayed in several countries. For instance, in France, where operators’ applications were originally due in February for an auction mid-April 2020, the process has been postponed, without any new schedule set. Also, in Spain, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation announced late March the postponement of an auction for 5G-suitable 700 MHz spectrum. Austria, Portugal and Czech Republic also postponed their auctions for 5G frequencies.

Mobile network operators worldwide are responding to the emergency and refocusing their investments on day to day operations such as reliable broadband and 4G networks rather than investing in new technologies. Even after the crisis, many are expected to postpone their capital expenditures in new technologies to offset the impact of the global economic crisis on their results.

Apple, which was anticipated to announce a series of 5G-capable iPhones in September 2020 is now considered to have postponed its plans. More globally, if the 5G infrastructure is not deployed as aggressively as anticipated, the market for 5G devices will not have any reason to take off.

Even telecom giant Huawei is resetting its plans and prioritizing projects to improve resilience in existing networks as more customers work from home, rather than deploying aggressively a 5G infrastructure. Furthermore, some analysts consider the ongoing crisis will help Huawei, and to a lesser extent ZTE, to extend their 5G lead over Europe as a result of COVID-19: already after the pandemic peak has been passed in China, infrastructure deployment restarted for China Mobile and other operators: while 130,000 5G base stations had been deployed by the end of 2019, the MIIT (Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) anticipates 600,000 sites will be deployed by end of 2020. This way, Huawei and ZTE are more ready for a global deployment of technology than their Western counterparts Ericsson or Nokia that are in lockdown mode on most of their markets: Europe and North America.

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