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We may still be in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, but already – and rightly – there’s discussion of plans for recovery.

Dealing with the crisis as it stands is and must be the priority – for governments, international agencies, civil society – but there’s going to be no single moment in which we move from pandemic to normality (whether that’s the old normality or something new). There’ll be a continuum. The steps we take in crisis should be the steps that take us someone that we’d like to be.

Resetting and recovery

In an earlier blog I suggested that this gives us the opportunity to reset some of our assumptions, priorities and ways of working – in multilateral institutions, for example, in relation to human rights and climate change, and in internet governance.

The opportunity to reset applies to investment too, which is my theme this week. And it’s especially important for the emerging digital society because experience with other types of crisis – post-conflict, for example – shows that the communications sector’s usually in the forefront of new investment looking forward. It can shape recovery.

I’m driven to think about this by an excellent webinar on 5G in Africa that APC hosted on 22 April. In a 90-minute discussion, Steve Song and Peter Bloom of Rhizomatica provided an overview of what 5G is and what its implications are, with a specific focus on the African context, including concerns around 5G and the coronavirus pandemic. 

5G in highly connected countries

In my country (Britain), there’s a widely shared assumption that 5G and ‘superfast broadband’ – not the same concept but linked enough – are essential to the country.

Political parties compete with one another on expediting its delivery.

  • Voters, they assume, will vote for better digital connectedness: for better Netflix, better games, the Internet of Things that will connect (as the ITU put it fifteen years ago) ‘everything from tyres to toothbrushes’ in future.

  • But superfastness, they assume, is even more important for future economic growth – the key to international competitiveness in a world where all competitors go superfast.

  • Such superfast connectedness is thought especially important to the country’s own digital businesses. If you want to get ahead in digital, the thinking goes, you have to be ahead in digital infrastructure.

  • Part of the sales pitch to voters also concerns potential for improvements in public services. Virtual surgery gets mentioned quite a lot (though Brits are more concerned these days about underinvestment in more basic aspects of the nation’s health service).

The country's political parties disagree not about whether we should go superfast but how: should there be public investment or should we leave it to the market?

Yes, there are sceptics. But there were sceptics too about 3G, at least where ordinary citizens were concerned. Who would want to access the internet on mobile phones, those sceptics thought back then (and I confess that I was one)? That would be clunky, slow and inconvenient. (Be fair: this was before the iPhone, touchscreens and the like. It was clunky, slow and inconvenient on the phones we knew back then.)

5G in less connected countries

So is the case the same or different in less connected countries? Two strands of thought here, concerned with economic growth and social equity, which I’ll conjoin together later.

The economic case

From an economic point of view there are both similarities and differences.

It’s clear that participation in a global digital economy requires high standards of international and local business connectivity. UNCTAD has made that case powerfully at least since its landmark Information Economy Report on ICTs, Enterprises and Poverty Alleviation in 2010 (to which – full disclosure – I contributed). It’s a theme of UNCTAD’s programme of virtual e-commerce events this week.

Maximum digitalisation may be less central to some sectors in developing countries’ economies – it’s less significant, for example, in subsistence agriculture and commodity extraction than in services – but it’s still crucial to export competitiveness and improving national productivity. It’s obviously vital to nascent digital sectors, as more recent UNCTAD reports have emphasised.

And it’s not, for many countries, a matter of investing in connectivity in order to gain share in global markets. It’s a matter of investing in order to avoid losing share to other countries that are more connected.

The case for social equity

But the outstanding difference between most industrialised and most developing countries is the extent of digital engagement – the access problems, the digital divides with which readers of this blog are well familiar.

In many developing countries, large numbers of people remain unconnected – principally because connectivity’s not affordable for them – or underconnected – because smartphones and smartphone usage are expensive, or because 3G and 4G networks aren’t yet rolled out sufficiently across their countries.

5G’s not an investment priority from their point of view. They won’t be buying IoT devices. What they want’s basic connectivity on handsets and networks that they can afford to use, that’s at a reasonable speed and that’s reliable.

That goal, of better 3G and 4G rather than leaping to 5G, was central to the discussion in APC's webinar last week. As one contributor put it, 5G looks as if it is for those that have connectivity rather than for those that don’t; about ‘connecting refrigerators rather than connecting people,’ .

Is this a binary choice?

As often, it’s easy to see this as a binary choice but better to think about it as a complex one. Four points to bear in mind, and then suggestions as to how we might seek balance and prioritise.

First, 5G is going to happen. The drive towards investment in it, in both government and global business, will continue. The gains in connectivity it offers and the scope for new products and services that follow are too great for either to forgo. The fear of being left behind, for both, is near to existential. Both will want to hit the ground running when economies recover from the virus.

Second, investment resources are limited. Communications companies will prioritise what’s going to generate most revenue and profit. Rich customers using IoT devices will generate more income than poor customers using Facebook. That calculation drove telecoms investment fifty years ago and it drives digital investment now.

Third, there are obvious potential social and economic benefits to 5G (for example in advanced medicine) though there will also be downsides to these (for example in employment). Advanced technologies are likely, as they usually have done, to increase inequalities (for example, again, in access to advanced medicine), but investment in them in less connected contexts can help to mitigate this if it's accompanied by steps to improve access to the services that they enable.

And fourth, 5G also has costs, above and beyond the opportunity costs associated with investment allocation.  Especially environmental costs. The massive increase in data traffic that will follow 5G and its enabling new digital devices chattering together requires a massive increase in energy consumption. More churn of more devices equals electronic waste. These are also important public policy considerations.

Possible approaches

So what to do?

There are big public policy implications here, about national resources and priorities as well as digital investment. Commercial investment decisions don’t take those into account unless they impact on commercial goals. Policymakers should.

In a recent blog I wrote about 'responsible innovation', built around ‘principles that include a care for consequences rather than giving free rein to whatever's new.’ So what about ‘responsible investment’ too? What would that mean? How might it be achieved?

It would mean, clearly, balancing commercial and public policy priorities, rather than leaving things entirely to market-driven businesses. Not fetishing innovation for innovation’s sake but… building on past innovations as well as looking to exploit what’s new; addressing existing problems as well as looking for exciting opportunities; meeting the needs of the unconnected and underconnected as well as those of the well-connected and those (businesses) that really need superconnection.

In truth, of course, there’s nothing new about this. Encouraging the market to deliver public policy requirements alongside commercial value is precisely what telecoms regulation was about in the 1980s and 1990s:

  • steering investment in directions that maximise coverage for all sections of the community, through measures such as universal service obligations;

  • linking opportunities to invest in highly profitable markets with requirements to invest in meeting social needs;

  • enabling or requiring infrastructure sharing in order to reduce investment costs and, thereby, consumer prices;

  • and other ways of sharing the responsibilities, as well as gains, of innovation and investment.

5G deployment will require huge investment and resources. It’s about to accelerate. It's likely to increase inequalities between and within countries. Policymakers should think carefully about how it can be shaped – to promote what is desirable (including social equity), protect what is valuable and threatened, and prevent what would be harmful – and about how they can shape commercial incentives that encourage ‘responsible investment’ by their private sector partners.

Image: "5G network from China Telecom," by Macau Photo Agency via

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.