By Sascha Segan
The FBI is investigating whether Anthony Quinn Warner, the presumed Nashville suicide bomber, targeted a nearby AT&T building because of paranoia over 5G-related government surveillance, according to several news reports.
If so, that brings the anti-5G conspiracy nonsense to a new, even more destructive level. For several months now, idiots have been targeting what they presume to be 5G towers (even when they aren’t) out of YouTube-soaked fears that 5G technology is harmful to their health. It’s even reached my New York City neighborhood; across the street from my apartment there’s graffiti that says “5G Kills Life.”
Let me be clear: 5G is not dangerous to your health, and it isn’t being used to surveil you in a way that’s any different from the 4G technology in your current smartphone. If you’ve spent any time watching a police procedural in the past decade, you know law enforcement can get warrants to track your phone-based location history or see who you’ve called or texted. The New York Times has shown how even anonymized location data can be used to track you using Wi-Fi, 3G, or 4G. There’s nothing new to see there with 5G.
Much of the anti-5G movement is a social-media-fueled, malicious grift. But Warner’s 5G-surveillance fears, if true, open up a new front that shows a true weakness of 5G technology, 5G debate, and 5G messaging in the US.
Let me get there through the health conspiracies, though.
The Lies About 5G and Your Health
Health-related 5G conspiracies are often based in the idea that 5G is an untested technology that requires new infrastructure and is related to dangerous technologies like military anti-personnel weapons. In my mind, they build on pseudoscientists trying to make a dollar or a career out of fear, and potentially on international bad actors trying to handicap rivals.
Those conspiracy theories aren’t true on a whole bunch of levels. But I think one reason why the wireless carriers are doing such a poor job counteracting these ideas is that they’re afraid to reveal how mundane their 5G systems really are.
If asked upfront they’ll be honest: “nationwide” 5G right now offers the same performance as 4G … because it’s still dependent on 4G, runs on the same frequencies, and uses many of the same technologies. But they’re not about to put that on billboards or promote it to investors. That wouldn’t sell the latest phones from Apple or Samsung or get carriers’ subscribers to upscale their service plans.
The fact that 5G right now, for most Americans, is almost exactly like 4G, is the most powerful argument against conspiracy theories. But companies can’t say that because it would pierce their marketing. They’d have to admit that when they said “5G just got real,” they jumped the gun.
On a political level, meanwhile, 5G has become an incoherent hot button, used as an incomprehensible buzzword by President Trump and thrown around Congress as a totem for an intangible technology race against China.
I believe in the promise of 5G as a technology. I’ve read the specs. If implemented properly, with broad ecosystem support, it can do everything it promises. But it isn’t doing any of it yet, billboards and presidential tweets notwithstanding. That then opens up the door, in a twisted mind, to the paranoia Warner may have believed.
It’s No Benefit, So It Must Be a Threat
Wireless carriers and tech companies are all saying 5G is a huge, world-changing technology that’s available now, but few Americans are seeing any value from it. Politicians are saying we must be in the lead in the “race to 5G,” but they never bring home concretely what winning that race means for improving Americans’ lives.
As we’ve shown in our tests, both Verizon’s and AT&T’s nationwide 5G often offer weaker performance than their 4G. T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G is faster than its 4G, but still well in the range of good 4G networks like the Bell and Telus networks in Canada.
The only type of 5G in the US that shows a truly new experience is millimeter-wave, most commonly known as Verizon’s “UWB.” Even after two years of network-building, only a single-digit percentage of Americans at most can get that, and most consumers haven’t seen any real-life millimeter-wave applications.
(Some of that, by the way, is ironically because of coronavirus. One of the few great, early potential mmWave applications lets thousands of people stream high-quality video from a crowded stadium or concert hall without their phones getting choked up … but when’s the last time you were in one of those?)
We’ve been hearing for years about how 5G will change education, industry, gaming … everything. None of that has come to pass. Not even a little bit! It may do so in the future, but the wireless carriers seriously jumped the gun on this marketing, leaving a huge gap between 5G promises and 5G reality.
And that’s where conspiracy theories can jump in. The carriers are spending a ton of money on this; politicians really seem to want it; it seems very important; it has so far brought you little or no advantage. So there must be a secret agenda, right? Who’s really behind this? Why is so much money being spent?
The dumb, dull, true answer is that Ajit Pai’s FCC screwed up its spectrum allocation plan, initially choosing a coward’s way out of not facing down the DoD or satellite companies to clear out the best frequencies for 5G, despite massive political pressures to show the US as a “leader” in any “race” against China.
The government and the carriers also wildly underestimated the logistical difficulty of building 28GHz networks, and new phones have become so boring that carriers need a buzzword to get you to upgrade during an overall very bad year for America in general.
But you’re not going to see any of that on a billboard.
The Grain of Truth in 5G Conspiracies
If the Nashville bomber saw 5G as a surveillance tool—and I’m not saying he did—yes, that’s just a 2020 version of “the FBI put radios in my teeth.” It’s classic paranoia.
The concept of “5G” has insinuated itself thoroughly into the internet’s surveillance-paranoia communities. For years now, people with paranoid delusions have shared and reinforced them with each other on websites dedicated to “targeted individuals.” One of those sites now shows a big 5G graphic, right at the top of the homepage.
But just as anti-FBI paranoia thrived during the post-J. Edgar Hoover era when it turned out the FBI was keeping files on a huge number of people, there’s a grain of sand in this twisted pearl, a reason why so many of these delusions have locked on to 5G specifically.
That grain isn’t that anything evil is being done with 5G. It’s that nothing much is being done with 5G that consumers can actually perceive, massively out of proportion to the marketing spend, political debate, and international hair-tearing it has incurred. And that shouldn’t be ignored. It should be a lesson—that the FCC, Congress, wireless carriers, and the wireless industry need to show some real 5G benefits for the average American, or shut up about it for a while.