The latest conspiracy theory has seen cell phone towers torched and slowed high-tech measures to fight the pandemic.
With COVID-19 reshaping our world, there has been no end to the explanations as to where it came from. One recent conspiracy theory claiming 5G (short for fifth generation) is transmitting the coronavirus has spread almost as fast as the pandemic itself.
More than 50 cellphone masts in the UK have been set on fire as a result. Even celebrities and television hosts are jumping on the 5G conspiracy train. And these are by no means the first crazy theories that center on 5G technology. For example, the Russian government has been working tirelessly to prop up the notion that 5G causes cancer. Of course, these theories are absolutely false: the technology is perfectly safe. But social media companies are still having to work hard to combat the misinformation.
So why all the hullabaloo over 5G? 5G works by using “small cells” to transmit cellular data signals that are much faster and have far lower latency than current technology. This allows for video calls, with perfect quality, to be made over mobile phones and a number of other connected devices. The increased visibility of these towers is likely attracting increased scrutiny to 5G.
But blaming 5G for the spread of COVID-19 isn’t just wrong; it’s also hampering the opportunities we have to harness this technology to mitigate some of the worst effects of the virus.
A recently released study from the Louisiana Department of Education found that only 66 percent of students surveyed have access to the internet in their homes. So while every school district had some kind of online leaning available, fewer than seven out of 10 students could access the material. School districts around the country have been dealing with this by taking some innovative approaches such as sending out school buses that act as wifi hotspots, but this is only a temporary solution.
Of course, Americans are relying on the internet for more than just learning. Working from home, telemedicine, and even seeing your friends has now moved online. It should be no surprise that bandwidth usage has increased by more than 20 percent since the coronavirus struck, numbers usually reserved for the Super Bowl.
5G technology offers a means of closing the digital divide by removing the need for fiber connections. Instead Americans can use their mobile connections to tether their devices or simply purchase wireless hotspots while still getting lightning speeds. Some states and localities are already using wireless technology to connect students. New Orleans purchased 5,000 hotspots and sent them home with students so they could access online learning materials.
Politicians at national, state, and local levels need to enact the right policies to speed up 5G deployment. It’s been estimated that over 800,000 small cells must be deployed by 2026, which won’t just create greater connectivity but also high paying jobs. Yet exorbitant fees and long application processes have been slowing deployment across the country. The FCC recently adopted rules to limit both costs and application times, but those rules are currently being challenged in court.
As state and local lawmakers see first-hand the damage that a lack of connectivity can cause, they should push for lower deployment costs and cut the red tape holding up small cell installments. While the FCC order only provided a floor to cap regulatory installment costs, states are free to adopt laws that further decrease these barriers. The largest factor slowing deployment is often local aesthetic issues. Clarifying those aesthetic guidelines before installations take place can work to mitigate these problems. State and local officials should also stand firm against the growing conspiratorial claims being leveled against 5G.
Our nation’s effective response to COVID-19 will require all levels of government to work together to ensure Americans remain safe. Connecting everyone will take similar cooperation. The president, Congress, and the Federal Communications Commission have all taken action. Now it’s time for federalism to work. We can’t afford to wait any longer.
Eric Peterson is the director of the Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation.
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