Access to the internet is now considered a public necessity, similar to water and electricity. People lacking affordable and reliable internet access are at a disadvantage in navigating today’s world, especially in these times of social isolation. 

The telecom industry is intent on “bridging the digital divide” to end this inequity.  Sounds good at first blush, but unfortunately, the lowest cost internet option – one that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor respectful of privacy – is the one being offered. Will this fix the problem or are we rather substituting one disadvantage for another?

Not All Technology Is Created Equal

Internet can be accessed through wired connections such as fiber optics or coaxial cable, or wirelessly via cell towers, 4G/5G antennas and wireless “hot spots” next to homes, and/or via satellites. Wired connections are safer, faster, more cyber secure, energy efficient and reliable than wireless connections. Wireless, however, has one advantage over wired – mobility. You can access the internet wirelessly when out and about, something that cannot be done with a wired connection.

In its haste to “bridge the digital divide” the telecom industry is peddling 4G/5G antennas and wireless hot spots to under-served communities. Most people are unaware there are better ways to connect to the internet from one’s home or business and are oblivious to the harms and risks of these close proximity wireless antennas and hot spots. Thrilled to get online at all, these communities willingly accept telecoms offerings.

The industry is most pleased as their 4G soon to be 5G-wonder child, and its attendant and lucrative promises of data-harvesting, artificial intelligence, surveillance capitalism, “software as a service” all gain another captured market. And an added perk is that industry appears to be fixing a gross injustice. Seemingly, a win/win for all.

So, What Could Be the Problem?

Like many of us, these communities are unaware of the thousands of studies showing both long and short-term health effects from existing 2G, 3G, and 4G technologies, and the dozens of studies showing harm specifically from the millimeter wave frequencies to be used in 5G and the modulations carried along these frequencies. Not to mention the, as yet unstudied other virtuoso technological feats that will likely find their way into the 5G build out.

Similar to the playbook used by tobacco, asbestos, Teflon, and other toxins, the telecom industry has neglected to disclose risks from 5G. Instead, it unabashedly asserts 5G’s safety while providing not a single study to substantiate this claim that runs counter to the consensus of science on wireless health effects. 

Internet access may indeed be a public necessity but so is our health. The challenge before us is not simply how to bridge the digital divide, but how to bridge it while preserving our health and that of all other living beings — not to mention our personal privacy, sovereignty and dignity.

Need for Digital Literacy is a Public Necessity

It follows that if internet is a public necessity, an understanding of the pros and cons of different ways of connecting to the internet, aka digital literacy, would also be essential. For without this understanding, people cannot defend their rights, and risk becoming victims of an inequitable system. Without digital literacy, we are seemingly locked into a binary choice: “Do we want 5G or no internet access?” when in truth, there is another option – safe wired internet.

Industry has a moral obligation to not only disclose the risks and benefits of the technologies the public is being offered and exposed to, but to advise people on the safest technology option for any given situation.

Governments have a duty to educate the public, starting with school aged children, on how to connect to the internet in the safest way possible. We all deserve the right to fully informed consumer choices to best protect ourselves, our families, communities, and our collective future on this planet.

Social Injustice in Internet Access

Environmental pollutants have a long and well-documented history of impacting communities of lesser means. In the case of 5G, there is no evidence to date that lower income communities are preferentially being targeted for 5G and that safer wired connections are being withheld.

However, defending against 5G takes lots of money, time, effort and resources, all of which communities of means have access to if they get organized in time and choose to push back against industry’s agenda.

Communities of lesser means cannot afford the luxury of fighting the system. Either they must accept a cell tower antenna outside their bedroom window or no internet connectivity at all — a grim choice indeed.

By Kate Kheel