Ongoing discussion on 5G is a sham fight

Ongoing discussion on 5G is a sham fight


The imminent roll-out of the 5G network across the Netherlands shows what can go wrong with technology policy. The way in which the government tackles this wicked problem leaves citizens, policymakers and experts engaged in bogus battles and can contribute to further distrust in politics and science.

Authors: Bert de Graaff (Erasmus University Rotterdam) en Christian Bröer (University of Amsterdam)

The recent discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of the latest generation of the mobile telephony and data network (5G) is a repetition of moves that has been dragging on for twenty years. The problem with 5G technology and its predecessors is that thousands of installations need to be installed everywhere in the Netherlands. This inevitably leads to resistance, for example because about a quarter of the Dutch population claims to be concerned about the potential health hazards of the electromagnetic fields (radiation) used by the network. This was the case ten years ago and will continue to be the case, partly due to the ongoing debate.

Scientists, politicians, the business community and citizens are taking positions in this field and are fighting over the effects of modern technology on health, the economy and the environment. As the battle continues, the technology will be rolled out further. We often see these kinds of long-standing issues, such as the noise pollution caused by aviation. The 5G case makes clear what can go wrong with technology policy and what alternatives there are.

The ‘indispensable raw material’ will be produced despite uncertain health effects

To avoid resistance from citizens and municipalities, the policy is based on a precautionary principle: the technology will be introduced unless there are demonstrable health risks. This is striking, because, for example, ‘espionage via 5G’ or the ‘aesthetics’ of installations could also be important. Another characteristic of the discussion about 5G is that there has never been a debate about the desirability of this technology.

Instead, since the 1990s it has been a question of weighing up health against the benefits of innovation. And the benefits are the deciding factor. For example, the Letter to the Parliament on 5G and health from State Secretary Keijzer and Minister Bruins of last 17 April opens with the statement that the technology is necessary, even an ‘indispensable raw material for society’.

On the other hand, like the news item by Nieuwsuur of 24 April, the Letter to the Parliament discusses in detail the (un)certainties regarding the health effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields. Scientific research and limit values need to ensure that there are no harmful effects. But science can seldom give a definitive answer, there is still some uncertainty about health risks and so the debate continues. The question is how much uncertainty we accept and how to determine it. Scientists usually do not solve these questions.

Municipalities have little to say

Interestingly, in his letter, the minister now says that he will enter into discussions with municipalities about health. This makes sense, because the roll-out of 5G is much more local than 4G or 3G. Moreover, citizens with concerns and complaints often first go to their municipality. But municipalities can’t do much with the health concerns of their citizens.

After previous local protests against masts had been supported by municipalities, an Antenna Covenant was created in 2002 to guarantee the roll-out of the networks (as was also required in the frequency auctions of the providers) and antennas shorter than five metres can now be placed without a license. Municipalities are called to account, but are largely sidelined from a legal point of view with regard to 5G, precisely in order to guarantee the roll-out. This also means that the discussion continues to drag on.

This way of tackling tough issues is not innocent

We have here a policy that appears to be aimed at curbing potential unrest rather than addressing the sources of such concern. The benefits of the technique are paramount and the interpretation of uncertainties about health effects is left to expert committees and scientists. Health effects are not found, but they are continually being anticipated.

In this way, unrest and uncertainty remain in the air while the technology, just like its predecessors, is on its way. Addressing these tough issues in this way is repetitive, not inexpensive, and not innocent. It leaves citizens, policymakers and experts engaged in bogus battles and it can contribute to further distrust in politics and science.

Beyond repetition

How do we get through this? In order to do so, we need to move away from the current ambiguous framing of the problem. We believe that this can be done in two ways. The first is to strengthen the pro-technology part of the current policy. So let us put the emphasis on the fact that we want technology, that science now offers sufficient certainty that exposure to electromagnetic fields outside the set limits can do little harm, and that we, as a society, bear any unforeseen consequences. [This is where we as a society go wrong – See for instance the recent Research Summaries of Dr. Henry Lai – JRS] This could include accepting that some people say that they cannot tolerate exposure, and that we are responding to this with recognition and care.

Another approach to the problem is to open up the public debate on this issue and, together with all stakeholders – including local authorities and the citizens who actually want the technology to be introduced – to look for new meanings for a new generation of the mobile network and the policy that fits in with it. This may mean that this technology will not materialize or that other, perhaps better, technology, partly determined by citizens, will evolve.

Bert de Graaff is a university lecturer at the Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Christian Bröer is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Read more about their research ‘Politics and Risk Communication‘, which was completed in 2016.

Translated by JRS.

Foto: visual077 (Flickr Creative Commons)

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