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How 5G will aide sustainable development

Clara Nwachukwu

Nigeria, yesterday, joined tens of other countries in the world in the use of the super-fast Fifth Generation (5G) network. This followed the approval the Federal Executive Council (FEC), for its immediate deployment under the National Policy on Fifth Generation (5G) Network for Nigeria.

A Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) report as of June, indicated that 58 countries had 5G networks, compared to 38 a year ago, while a dozen more have had 5G mobile technologies deployed in part.

Also, 443 operators in 133 countries/territories are said to be investing in 5G mobile or 5G FWA/home broadband networks, while 811 operators running long term evolution (LTE) networks providing mobile and/or FWA services in 240 countries/territories worldwide.

The report further envisages that 5G will reach 1 billion users in 3years+, compared with 4 years for 4G, and 12 years for 3G.

On Monday, GSA in its monthly 5G update disclosed that the number of announced 5G devices has now risen to 991 devices, 645 of which are commercially available. The increase is devices is 20.6% above the last three months and expected to rise further in the coming months.

The Federal Government’s approval followed a presentation by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, during the FEC meeting.

The Ministry said in a statement that the National Policy took two years of extensive multi-sectoral stakeholders’ engagement to ensure adequate public awareness and sensitisation amid concerns over the safety of the technology.

Sustainability concerns

Although approval for the use of the 5G network didn’t come as a surprise, given the three-month trials that began on November 25, 2019, to which the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) reassured that it was fully prepared for what is not clear is whether Nigerians are sufficiently convinced about its sustainability following conflicting findings.

In May, the Senate had also permitted the use of the technology following the consideration and adoption of the recommendations of the report of its Joint Committees on Communications; Science and Technology; ICT and Cyber Crimes; and Primary Health Care and Communicable Diseases on, “The Status of 5G Network in Nigeria and its Technological Impact on Nigeria Citizens.”

Earlier in February, Pantami, leading the heads of agencies under his Ministry to the hearing by the Joint Committee reaffirmed the independent scientific reports published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), both agencies of the United Nations (UN).

The reports indicated that there is no health risks to human lives associated with the deployment of 5G, as widely feared and corroborated by the representatives of mobile networks operators (MNOs), telecom equipment vendors, and relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) among other stakeholders.

Due to its high speed and reliability, it is widely believed that 5G can help sustainability by lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, better manage electricity, reduce water consumption and contribute to green job growth.

As such, the Americas and Europe are championing the 5G implementation, while investments in the technology are also being made in almost every country in Asia, with South Korea leading the pack, the GSA report revealed.

Expectedly, research into how sustainable the 5G technology is, are highest in these regions, especially regarding its environmental impact.

According to the UN, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. As such, governments and businesses are looking to 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and internet of things (IoT) technology to create smart cities where sensors, cameras and smart phones will be linked.

The connectivity and speed of these networks will enable cities to be better managed and more efficient and sustainable, it added.

5G will also help industries – from manufacturing to transport to agriculture – improve energy, resource and material efficiency, enabled by automation and digitalization.

Environmental impact

According to experts, the speed, capacity and connectivity of 5G will provide many opportunities to protect and preserve the environment.

  • 5G technology with IoT will be able to increase energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enable more use of renewable energy.
  • It can help reduce air and water pollution, minimize water and food waste, and protect wildlife.
  • It can also expand our understanding of and hence improve decision-making about weather, agriculture, pests, industry, waste reduction and much more.

All of these were the summary of the findings by the New York-based, Columbia Climate School, University of Columbia, U.S. last year August.

Observing the since 5G is a new technology, the General Climate Institute argued that its long-term effects on the environment are unknown.

Conflicting finds

The Climate School equally noted that there are already concerns that 5G could have negative effects on the environment because of its high energy use, and the impacts of manufacturing new infrastructure and a multitude of new devices.

The Institute said: “Currently, information and communications technology is responsible for about 4 percent of global electricity consumption, and 1.4 percent of global carbon emissions. But an Ericcson report projects that by the end of 2025, 5G will have 2.6 billion subscribers; total global mobile subscriptions are expected to reach 5.8 billion by then.

“By 2030, IoT devices around the world could number 125 billion. At that point, information technology is expected to be responsible for one-fifth of all global electricity consumption and by 2040, it could generate 14 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. If the entire system is not energy efficient, 5G will ultimately not be sustainable.”

It quoted the president of The Shift Project, a French think tank advocating the shift to a post-carbon economy, as saying in 2019, that, “…behind each byte we have mining and metal processing, oil extraction and petrochemicals, manufacturing and intermediate transports, public works (to bury the cables) and power generation with coal and gas.

“As a result, the carbon footprint of the global digital system is already four percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and its energy consumption rises by nine percent per year.”

The increase in GHG emissions will be due in part to the fact that consumers will need to buy new 5G mobile phones in order to take full advantage of 5G.

Also, a Swedish study calculated that a smart phone produced 45kg of CO2 during its entire lifetime, with most of it coming from the production phase—the manufacture of integrated circuits, sourcing the raw material, production of the phone shell, then assembly and distribution. If accessories and the mobile network are included, the total life cycle impact is 68kg CO2.

The manufacture of more IoT devices and cell phones, and small cells also means more mining and use of many non-renewable metals that are difficult to recycle.

Governments and businesses are looking to 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and internet of things (IoT) technology to create smart cities where sensors, cameras and smart phones will be linked.

European Green Deal

Despite these negatives, Independent pan-European media network specialised in EU affairs, Eurativ, in a stakeholders special report on, Re-connecting Europe, published in March insisted that the work of the ICT sector have shown how 5G and accompanying technologies can lead to an inclusive, green digital recovery that the Green Deal envisions.

The European Green Deal, which is believed to play an important role in the region’s COVID-19 recovery, aims to cut carbon emissions, achieve economic growth not tied to resource use, and ensure no one is left behind in the with the UN 2050 SDGs.

The report quoted Luis Neves, the Global CEO of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), as saying: In our report, 5G is one of the seven digital technologies identified as having a critical influence on the world, including: Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Cognitive technology, Cloud, Digital Access, and Blockchain. In the case of 5G, our report goes into extensive detail on its role in greening the world.”

Neves therefore urged public and private sectors collaboration to align with the ambitions of the Green Deal, the SDGs and the Paris Agreement.

5G revolution

According to the Climate Institute, 5G, which began deployment in 2019, can deliver enhanced broadband for cell phones, super-fast and reliable communication, and machine-to-machine communication. It promises to be 100 times faster than 4G.

But beyond speed and connectivity, it said 5G also has ultra-low latency (delay in communications), and 1,000 times more capacity because it is expanding into new frequencies of the spectrum. This will eventually make wireless Internet possible everywhere, from smart cars to the Internet of Things (IoT), which can connect all kinds of devices and sensors through the Internet and allow them to communicate without human involvement.

Based on its findings, approximately every 10 years, new wireless mobile technology emerges that improves on the previous generation.

As such, 1G, which came out in the 1980s, supported only voice calls, while 2G, birthed in the 1990s transported cell phones from analogue to digital, enabled messaging and call and text encryption to keep communications secure.

In 1998, 3G made video calling and mobile Internet access possible, and 4G, introduced in 2008, supports HD TV via mobile, video conferencing and gaming. Today, most cell phones use 3G and 4G technology.

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