From people burning down mobile phone towers out of a belief that they spread coronavirus (COVID-19) — and thus putting essential infrastructure out of action — to a conviction that the virus was deliberately created and will provide a pretext for Microsoft founder Bill Gates to implant everyone with 5G microchips, conspiracy theories about the pandemic are rife, and misinformation surrounding fifth generation mobile networks (5G) has become one of the main narratives contributing to the confusion during the pandemic. These come on top of existing misgivings about the technology itself and the role of China’s Huawei in 5G rollouts around the world, including in a number of Central, Eastern and Southeast European countries.
This is unfortunate as in fact 5G is an opportunity to develop numerous sectors, starting with industry, entertainment, telemedicine and several others. Giving a boost to a broad range of industries becomes all the more important as economies begin to recover after the stop-shock caused by the pandemic.
5G will be essential for the economic recovery from the current crisis in which digital services are centre stage, commented Andreas Geiss, head of the Unit for Spectrum Policy in DG CONNECT at the European Commission, at the 5W on 5G online symposium held via Zoom on May 14 and streamed on Facebook. The forum was organised by the European Commission-funded COMPACT project that aims to increase awareness of the latest technological discoveries among key stakeholders.
Even during the pandemic, major tech companies have boomed, while other sectors struggle. “While most stocks are going down [in value], when you look at certain providers of digital services like Netflix, Amazon, etc,, they have the highest share prices ever,” said Geiss.
Post crisis, he continued, “the focus is going to be on digital and we're probably going to have some differences — a new normal, as some people call it — coming out of this crisis, and that means not only new opportunities for businesses but also threats [associated with] continuing with business as usual because everyone will have to adapt to the new situation… If we look back, the basis for Europe’s prosperity has been its economic situation, its competitiveness, its ability to innovate and to be creative, and if we think about now, it's digital innovation that's key for prosperity in the next decade, and therefore successful rollouts of 5G in Europe will have a positive effect on prosperity and the availability of jobs,” Geiss said
He emphasised that 5G will also help reduce the digital divide because it will make it possible to extend wireless technologies further into rural areas that are not yet covered by broadband through fibre or cable connections.
Fellow panellist Andreana Atanasova, Bulgaria’s deputy minister for information technology and communication, made a similar point. “We believe that this kind of technology will grow the economy and create jobs. If the people see that this is a key element for development of our economy maybe they will understand that the technology will only help,” she said. Bulgaria has been working on 5G implementation already and all its telcos have begun 5G trials. The country aims to offer 5G by the middle of this year.
“If we want our economies to be dominant or at least to be competitive in the global market, we need 5G. Period!” Munir Podumljak, executive director at Partnership for Social Development and founder at NewsBeez, a private initiative that aims to fix the “broken internet”, summed it up.
Europe is already on the way to being a 5G continent: full 5G coverage within the EU is expected by 2025. Currently, there are 138 connected cities in Europe where 5G is implemented and tested safe.
Still, there are various concerns that need to be addressed. Despite all the optimism, Geiss sees emerging markets as weak spots in future development and doesn’t believe that they can quickly see benefits from 5G in terms of attracting new investors as they firstly need investments in digitalisation.
“Once that investment is taking a place, it … prepares the ground for the connectivity needed by startups or other types of businesses which then can use that type of connectivity in order to go global in their business. And I think that connectivity is a prerequisite and still a major challenge in the emerging markets,” Geiss said in response to a question from bne IntelliNews.
5G has been dogged by controversy almost from the outset, with much of the concern centring around Chinese Huawei’s role and associated questions over privacy and security — specifically whether Huawei’s equipment could leave users vulnerable to Chinese espionage.
Huawei is one of the global leaders in 5G alongside mainly companies from Europe (Nokia and Ericsson) and the US (Cisco, Intel, HPE). South Korean Samsung is also on the list of manufacturers in Europe. Of the current global powers, Russia seems to be the only one not in the forefront, although two firms (Lenovo and Tattelecom) are part of ongoing 5G trials that have been publicly announced in the EU27, the UK, Norway, Russia, Turkey and Switzerland.
But Huawei’s role has been disputed by the public over fears its technology can be used to collect intelligence. Questions about what kind of risk Huawei-equipped network infrastructure brings when it comes to personal data protection, intellectual property rights, national security and security of infrastructure have yet to be answered conclusively.
However, Huawei says that not a single major security incident has occurred in the last 30 years, and that it works in compliance with all national and international laws and regulations from its 20-year operation in Europe.
Rivalry between China and the US has extended to the telecoms sphere. Several countries from CEE have reached agreements with the US on the development of secure 5G networks that open the way for restrictions on Huawei participating in certain tenders. These include a memorandum of understanding signed by Romania and the US and, more recently, a joint declaration by the Czech Republic and the US on finding reliable, trustworthy suppliers for 5G networks.
On the other hand, Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto announced in November that Huawei is building a 5G network in the Central European country. Hungary is one of just several European countries working with the Chinese company; according to the data available on the website of the European 5G Observatory, Huawei is a partner in about 60 ongoing 5G trials throughout the EU but also in Norway, Switzerland, Russia and Turkey. Huawei is also present in Bulgaria and Romania as well as in Serbia.
Besides Huawei, Nokia also supplies 5G equipment in Bulgaria. In Romania, Cisco, Samsung and Ericsson are present as well. In the Russian market, the 5G players are Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, California-based Qualcomm and local Tattelecom. In Turkey the list includes two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, as well as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung.
Then came the pandemic, and with it a flood of new conspiracy theories linking the novel coronavirus and 5G. “5G is a symbol of change, COVID also threatens us and maybe that’s why they have come together… We fear the unknown, and both COVID-19 and 5G are a kind of unknown for many, so we need to make better job of putting the facts forward,” said Lukasz Porwol, e-government deputy unit leader at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), NewsBeez executive team member and COMPACT project coordinator.
The new conspiracy theories rapidly entered the mainstream, not least because the way the average citizen obtains information has shifted from traditional media to online; for many this means social media, where they often only get misinformation and disinformation.
The risks of manipulating dominant opinion are multiplied by sophisticated human reaction programming tools such as the one that was used by the infamous Cambridge Analytica in the Brexit referendum and 2016 US presidential election. Similar tools are used to spread disinformation about 5G. But advertising algorithms tend to pick out simply what internet users like best or hate the most, as Podumljak points out. “What is most liked or most hated is not usually the complete truth and in most cases is not truth at all. It is just a thing that provokes an emotional reaction. So, when we enter platforms such as Facebook or search through Google, we basically see those features that are most liked or most hated. Those are being sold to the marketing agencies and that’s how the entire system operates,” Podumljak said.
According to Podumljak, the 5G topic on the internet and social media is heavily affected by competition on the global market over 5G supremacy. “Those that are behind [the misinformation and disinformation] have clear intentions and benefit from slowing everyone else down. In those situations, they deploy significant resources to slow everyone else down…” he concluded.
According to Geiss, when it comes to the vulnerability of using technology from a specific vendor, EU institutions are very much involved in looking at cyber security issues related to 5G. They have put out recommendations and are working very closely with EU member states in order to identify cyber security risks and provide a toolbox on how to deal with those risks.
“This does not relate to any one manufacturer but rather it’s a toolbox to identify what could be vulnerable or not, and then that will be taken forward by each administration depending on the use of different networks. If vulnerabilities are identified by any manufacturer … then there are also certain elements in the toolbox in order to deal with that, in order to, for example, restrict the use of the technology to certain parts of the network which are less critical in terms of the security issues and so on,” Geiss said in response to bne IntelliNews’ question about the risk to privacy posed by Huawei’s technology. He underlined that this is an important issue for the entire industry, and said that all companies are treated equally.
However, with misinformation (and disinformation) rife it is necessary to address security concerns— and allay fears, however irrational, among potential users — if 5G is to be an additional engine for growth as Europe emerges from its pandemic-induced economic contraction.