5G: The Next True or False Public Utility of the Future City?

A New Link5G Installation in Morris Heights, the Bronx, New York City, 2022. Image Credit: Kevin Duggan
Who is 5G really for? Fiona McDermott urges closer consideration of the public use value of much-hyped 5G technologies through an examination of the potentially fraught public-private partnerships extolling the development of urban 5G infrastructure in the name of public good.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on The Rise of 5G.]

True and False Public Utilities

Throughout his prolific writing career, the radical polemist Ivan Illich warned that the benefits of many modern technologies and institutional arrangements were illusory, whereby often utopian ideals and high-tech developments only served to privilege the few and undermined transitions towards an equal society. In his 1971 book, Deschooling Society, Illich sets out his theory on a spectrum of the social attributes of different institutions. In it, he describes two specific types of institutions as situated at either pole of the spectrum, whereby situating entities along this spectrum allows one to critique the social usefulness of such institutions or services and to decide how best to invest public resources in them so as to benefit the many. To the left end of the spectrum, sits ‘a convivial institution’, which is characterised by the facilitation of essential services to the public, as well as a general accessibility of those services. According to Illich, examples of such convivial institutions include: “Telephone link-ups, subway lines, mail routes, public markets and exchanges [which] do not require hard or soft sells to induce their clients to use them. Sewage systems, drinking water, parks, and sidewalks are institutions men use without having to be institutionally convinced that it is to their advantage to do so.”1Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 58. To the right end of the spectrum, sits what he calls, ‘a manipulative institution’, which is characterised by indoctrination and prescribed treatment. He describes these as institutions that “tend to be highly complex and costly production processes in which much of the elaboration and expense is concerned with convincing consumers that they cannot live without the product or the treatment offered by the institution.”2Illich, 58.

To further illustrate the properties of ‘a manipulative institution’, Illich outlines the case of superhighway developments in the mid-twentieth century, prior to mass private car ownership. Here, Illich argues that while networked infrastructures like the postal service or telephone system “exist to serve those who wish to use them”, the superhighway system “mainly serves as an accessory to the private automobile.”3Illich, 58. Hence, he makes a distinction between two types of public institutions – the postal service or telephone system is a true public utility because it is in the service of and easily accessible to the many, whereas the superhighway infrastructure is a false public utility, because it is produced for the sake of selling a product. Unlike true public utilities that exist in service of the public good, the superhighways exist primarily to serve the interests of private industry. As Illich declares: “Superhighways are private preserves, the cost of which has been partially foisted upon the public.”4Illich, 58.

Furthermore, Illich claims that the rapid rollout and expansion of the superhighway infrastructure at the time was not accidental, but the intentional outcome of the car industry that “produce[s] simultaneously both cars and the demand for cars.” Therefore, as per Jevons Paradox – the notion that an increase in resource capacity or efficiency ultimately generates an increase in resource consumption or utilisation – this induced demand is the result of the concerted effort of the auto industry, which drove the rational and assumed need for high-speed private car travel. As Illich writes: “General Motors and Ford produce means of transportation, but they also, and more importantly, manipulate public taste in such a way that the need for transportation is expressed as a demand for private cars rather than public buses. They sell the desire to control a machine, to race at high speeds in luxurious comfort, while also offering the fantasy at the end of the road.”5Illich, 57. This story of how the car industry orchestrated a presumed demand for private cars and simultaneously the need for constructing superhighway infrastructure offers a useful analogy for that of recent network infrastructure developments such as 5G, whereby the exponential expansion of network capacity is to be quickly filled with alleged user demand.

The Hype of 5G

The manifold and extravagant claims purported by imminent 5G networks are well documented. With advances in terms of faster speeds, greater bandwidth, and reduced latency, 5G technologies promise to provide the infrastructural backbone for automated systems in cars, utility grids, cities, emergency services, healthcare and factories. Subsequently, we are told, the 5th generation wireless standard will ensure massive growth in wireless connectivity, transform our industries, services and communications, and bridge the notorious digital divide, all in a more cost-effective and efficient manner. Still, questions abound as to whether, as an emerging infrastructure, 5G will be a force for good or whether it will perpetuate the existing socio-cultural, political and environmental problems of the internet. As Shannon Mattern asks about the questionable need for 5G: “Is 5G solving real, pressing problems or merely creating new ones?”6Shannon Mattern, “Networked Dream Worlds,” Real Life Magazine (July 8, 2019), https://reallifemag.com/networked-dream-worlds/. Recent research has exposed the extent to which technology companies such as IBM and Cisco have been “selling smartness” by disseminating narratives about urban challenges and technological solutions to those challenges.7Jathan Sadowski and Roy Bendor, “Selling Smartness: Corporate Narratives and the Smart City as a Sociotechnical Imaginary,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 44, no. 3 (May 2019): 540–63, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0162243918806061. Beyond the technical advancements in speed, bandwidth and lower latency, the speculative applications of the technology are usually baseless. The technical papers that drive this research often cite far-fetched applications such as autonomous vehicles, remote surgery and even souped-up entertainment event experiences as the motivating reasons for developing 5G networks. Whereas previous generations of network infrastructure such as 2G/3G/4G enabled genuinely useful advances such as e-mail and video conferencing, the need for spectacle-driven and high bandwidth applications as serviced by 5G is arguably more questionable. 

Despite the baseless claims, there is immense pressure on cities to support the development of 5G networks. Many industries, national governments and engineering academics are purporting a new wave of technological development and economic prosperity to follow from the rise of 5G. For some, the successful rollout of 5G networks will determine the future of economic growth.8Don Rosenberg, “How 5G will change the world,” World Economic Forum (July 18, 2018), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/the-world-is-about-to-become-even-more-interconnected-here-s-how/. According to the proponents, the health of the economy will depend on the rate of adoption of data-driven developments like the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and automation, all of which will only thrive if 5G networks are prevalent to support them.9Rosenberg. Subsequently, those cities and governments who do not plan to fully embrace 5G and who do not invest in the rollout are warned they do so at their peril.10“5G and Future Connectivity, An Emerging Framework for Irish Cities and Towns,” https://connectcentre.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/5G-and-Future-Connectivity-in-Ireland-Discussion-Paper.pdf. They risk falling behind in terms of technological innovation and capitalising on the bountiful opportunities that 5G has to offer. 

Such pressure has led city governments to form alliances with industry-led consortia in order to deploy 5G networks in urban areas and work has already begun to build 5G infrastructure into the existing street level fabric of the city. For example, New York City has recently commissioned CityBridge to incorporate 5G cells into new purpose-built versions of the controversial LinkNYC booths. In Dublin, the Telecom Infra Project, a telecommunications initiative that was originally established by Facebook in 2016 and now includes hundreds of technology companies and mobile network operators, has partnered with the City Council to pilot 5G networks across the city centre. 

But what will these newly formed 5G alliances between the technology industry and city governments be in terms of the delivery of new public utilities? Will they result in the formation of true public utilities that are easily accessible to the many and exist in service of the public good? Or will they result in the formation of false public utilities that exist primarily to serve the interests of private industry? Will the resultant 5G networks really be a democratising force or will they only centralise profits and power for private interests? In order to address these questions we need to first consider the fundamental elements, deployment conditions, governance and ownership that contribute to the emerging formation of 5G networks in cities. The realisation of 5G networks requires the mobilisation of distinct public resources, both the intangible and tangible, namely large swathes of spectrum, which are readily available for use, and massive investment in the form of physical infrastructure. 

New Network Arrangements

In terms of physical infrastructure, the big difference between deploying the previous generations of network infrastructures such as 3G/4G, is the huge investment required in terms of the high density of equipment required for 5G, especially in urban areas. While purpose-built amenities like fibre connections and cell towers will still be essential, there is also an increased need to rely on existing infrastructures in the public realm – traffic poles, streetlights, and bus shelters – to act as deployment points for the build-out and extension of 5G networks. This is because 5G networks use high frequencies which travel relatively short distances, and therefore a high density of cell equipment at the street level is required. In this context, the physical objects that populate the streets and public spaces and are commonly in public ownership take on new functions and values as they become critical sites for the development of 5G networks.

But there are multiple practical issues as to how this densification of network infrastructures might be realised. On one hand, traditional mobile network operating companies that are financially squeezed (by consumer expectations to provide ever more data, whilst over the top media services reap the benefit), do not have the capital to fund the deployment of 5G networks. This is compounded by complications related to gaining access to suitable sites and deploying equipment amidst complex environments with varied ownership and multiple gatekeepers. On the other hand, municipalities and their respective agencies, by virtue of their operational influence and ownership of multiple assets in urban public spaces, are increasingly being put under pressure to facilitate the build-out of 5G networks. According to one report, the need for local government to cooperate with the telecommunications industry and allow them to utilise public assets is essential. It describes how “collaboration and engagement between local authorities and stakeholders such as mobile operators will be critically important. In particular, ease of access to local authority assets will be key to enabling pervasive 5G connectivity.”11“5G and Future Connectivity.” This leads to scenarios in which much of the 5G small cell infrastructure is relying on public infrastructure maintained by the city to host equipment provided by private companies. These types of arrangements mean that public utilities are being capitalised on by private companies, obscuring the ownership and control of public infrastructure. As a result, at the procurement stage, municipalities need to think broadly and long-term about the value of their existing physical infrastructures in the public realm and the services that they are enabling. 

Contested Claims of Value

Issues pertaining to the merging of public and private infrastructures are, of course, not unique to 5G networks. Indeed, the development of public infrastructure has long involved private actors to some degree or other. Increasingly, urban infrastructure projects are developed as part of public-private partnerships led by technology companies, enabling the use of public resources and municipal assets for private gain.12Ben Green, The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in Its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019). Yet Collier et al. suggest that what is changing is the role of public bodies in deploying and regulating infrastructural systems: 

In the twentieth century, governments around the world assumed a central role in building, managing, and regulating infrastructures that produced public goods in the public interest. Today, however, the status of ‘public infrastructure’ is being reconfigured and challenged in a striking range of circumstances. Technological developments, the renewed importance of private capital, and the spatial rescaling of infrastructures have raised questions about the connection between infrastructures and established forms of political collectivity. And the ‘publicness’ of infrastructure is contested through claims and counterclaims about the values produced by infrastructure, about the publics those values serve, about the kinds of expert or nonexpert knowledge that are relevant for defining these values, and about the technical means required to realize them.13Stephen J. Collier, James Christopher Mizes and Antina Von Schnitzler, “Public Infrastructures/ Infrastructural Publics,Limn, Issue 7 (2016), https://limn.it/issues/public-infrastructuresinfrastructural-publics/.

As Collier et al. note above, with the marked trend from public good to private commodification of public infrastructure, there is a critical need to question the types of value accrued through these forms of transition and who will benefit from these new values. 

While the “splintering”14Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism, Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (London: Routledge, 2001). of public infrastructures through forms of privatisation and commercialisation still holds true, what is changing with the advent of high-performance network infrastructures is the question of how the supposed demand for 5G is rationalised. The complicated relationships between municipalities and third-party companies that result from the 5G alliances beget questions as to who really stands be empowered or to be marginalised from these new arrangements. What does it mean for private companies to be extracting value through the medium of public infrastructure? And if the raison d’etre of 5G deployments is the flourishing of the Metaverse or the enabling of fleets of autonomous vehicles, then should cities and local governments be granting some of these companies access to public resources? 

At the same time, there is some welcomed rethinking towards the current state of technology policy with some EU policymakers calling for a pushback against contemporary techno-centrism so that technology development is “regenerative and restorative by design and by action, ‘giving back’ the resources used in the past, interdependent with the natural world, adaptive to change and based on core accountability for social justice.”15European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Industry 5.0, a Transformative Vision for Europe: Governing Systemic Transformations Towards a Sustainable Industry, 2022, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2777/17322. Under the banner of ‘Industry 5.0’, this movement considers how future industry can be designed to be aligned with the European Green Deal social and environmental principles. It calls for a move away from Industry 4.0, a technology-centric paradigm that focused on data-driven solutions and the enhanced efficiency of resources through increased internet connectivity, towards “a truly innovative industrial revolution founded on human and planetary needs versus just innovation for profit.”16Industry 5.0. 

The build-out of any infrastructure involves the embodiment of certain politics and values. Just as the superhighways of the previous century were promoted and constructed under the guise of public necessity, so too is the rollout of 5G facilitated by city governments to serve some assumed future inevitability. In its current form, the city is undoubtedly bending towards the adoption of 5G to work for the benefit of organised forces of commercial interests and particularly for those of traditional mobile network operators. On a physical and aesthetic level, this means the embedding of telecommunications infrastructure at a high density across the urban environment, which typically requires superimposing 5G equipment onto existing city infrastructures. But more than anything, 5G technologies pave the way for a huge increase in computing bandwidth to be filled up over time with ever more data-driven applications. This increased capacity, I would argue, is less to meet the genuine needs for everyday public services, and more to serve the speculative business interests of private companies. Therefore, at some point in the future, will we reflect on and lament the mass embedding of 5G infrastructure in the physical environment of our cities and beyond, not to mention the normalisation of technology logics, all for the sake of promised technological innovation? Or instead, should we now be considering more holistically the best use of public resources and the multiple trade-offs at stake when partnering with technology companies and implementing and integrating 5G technologies into our public infrastructures? Over time, applications enabled through 5G networks will undoubtedly seep into our cities, bringing more sensors, connected infrastructures and automated services. But if the current rollout of 5G is led by business interests and therefore arguably takes the form of a false public utility, then perhaps it is time to plan alternatively for the design of networks as true public utilities that use public resources for the benefit of citizens, and not just the most convenient rollout.


McDermott, Fiona. "5G: The Next True or False Public Utility of the Future City?" Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 3 (September 2022).
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