A/D/O by MINI | The Promise of 5G

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The Promise of 5G

The next generation of wireless technology could revolutionize connectivity, but faces a series of geopolitical, spatial and digital hurdles before it can become fully operational.

5G is “everywhere, and yet nowhere,” according to Guillemette Legrand. Advertised from Shenzhen to New York City, yet not fully operational anywhere, the next generation of wireless technology remains an enigma to most of us.

Legrand and her research partners, fellow Design Academy Eindhoven alumni Eva Jager and Vincent Thornhill, are trying to make sense of this uncertainty. The team is currently exploring the social and cultural implications of creating global 5G networks, and the challenges associated with implementing the tech in different parts of the world. As designers in residence for the second cycle of A/D/O research program At The Border, their investigations have so far thrown up government vs corporation battles, geopolitical feuds, and a whole lot of question marks.

“There’s an omnipresence, but at the same time, a real absence and lack of information about when it is going to be deployed and implemented,” Legrand told The Journal. “And the more you look into it, the more murky gets.”

So what exactly is 5G? The fifth generation of wireless tech is expected to revolutionize productivity, bring multi-billion-dollar economic growth, and make us better connected than ever before. It promises lightning-fast connectivity between our devices and objects, bringing us leaps closer to long-touted products and systems like driverless cars, truly connected homes, and the wider Internet of Things – all without relying on WiFi. “5G is going to allow devices to communicate among each other without us intervening,” said Legrand, although she noted that this raises concerns around privacy and data protection.

4G provided a huge leap forward for computing from 3G, in terms of speed and capacity. It enabled smartphones and resulting apps to become a global phenomenon, and made photo and video sharing a fundamental part of our culture. And 5G is expected to bring equally impactful, if not greater, advances for tech (as well as issues associated with giving too much control to AI). But, “The actual infrastructure of 5G, which would truly enable high-speed internet, is not there yet,” said Thornhill. “That is quite a confusing element of it as well.”

The main hold-up in the development of this infrastructure is that different political powers and private companies are currently wrestling for control of the radio airwaves that 5G uses to send data through. One of the most significant differences between 4G and 5G is the greater variety of radio frequencies that the latter is able to utilize. But not all of the available frequency bands are found on the same part of the radio spectrum, so divides have formed, and the conflicting parties are developing on different bands simultaneously. The promise of 5G is one of greater connectivity, but that won’t be achieved unless compatibility between the infrastructures can be aligned.

Several major cellular carriers in the US are already advertising that they offer 5G capabilities. But because many are using different bands of airwaves to transmit data, they are currently incompatible with one another. Therefore, the carriers are mainly relying on infrastructure from the previous generation, 4G, and the super-fast 5G speeds are not yet accessible to users. This is where the research that Legrand, Jager and Thornhill are working on comes in.

Since graduating, the trio have worked together in various capacities on research that examines the intersection of technology, culture and ethics. Legrand and Jager’s studio has recently focused on the impact of AI on society. Last year, they staged a performance at London’s V&A museum that speculated on “the potential of smart technologies to inform politics.”

On stage, an actor posing as UK prime minister Boris Johnson read his Brexit policy, while a neural network – a type of AI that can learn and make predictions based on fed input – created an impersonation. Their films, performances, installations and objects that follow similar themes have also been shown at London’s Design Museum, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial.

Meanwhile, Thornhill – who now teaches at Design Academy Eindhoven’s Information Design department – has been working with companies that specialize in “deep tech,” which he described at “the technology behind the technology.” “These are technologies that the public don't really see, but they provide the infrastructure within technologies that touch the public, like the internet,” he explained, adding that his work involves figuring out “how to communicate these difficult technologies to wider audiences.”

At The Border Cycle 2, titled Imagining The Border, looks at the ever-developing invisible boundaries of the digital world – like those that exist between the bands of radio wave frequencies that have become so fought-over in the race to 5G. The research team has also narrowed its focus specifically on the geopolitical aspect of 5G network development, bringing in the subject of borders in a second way.

Radio waves are natural phenomena, but have been increasingly commodified over time. Governments used to control the associated “airspace,” but today, private entities are stepping into the fray to capitalize on the demand. This is causing unprecedented disputes between administrations and technology companies.

“During wartime, a lot of the frequencies were dedicated to military uses,” Legrand said. “Then with the advent of radio technologies, there were certain portions allocated to public use. But now we can see all these military and public delegations being eroded for industry purposes.”

“We started looking into disputed frequency or spectrum areas between borders,” she continued. “And some countries being much more aggressive about buying registered frequencies from others, to be able to run their own infrastructure networks.”

For Legrand, Jager and Thornhill, design can help to create a clearer picture of what’s happening with 5G – bringing together those working in various silos related to infrastructure and development, as well as educating potential users on the complexity of the subject.

“One thing that designers are good at is thinking about a topic across different scales,” said Thornhill. “When we're talking to a scientist who specializes in frequency, he's looking at it at a very different scale from the city, or from [the view of a] cosmic scientist. What we find interesting is how to create a narrative between these different scales.”

The team will present their narrative with NYU radiology professor Christopher Collins; Tech:NYC policy director Zachary Hecht; and Greta Byrum, co-director of the Digital Equity Laboratory at The New School, during a discussion titled Bodies of Resonance: Envisioning 5G Network Formation at A/D/O on March 3, 2020. The conversation is bound to throw up questions surrounding when and how 5G will become fully available for public use, and what steps need to be taken for it to come to fruition.

Whether 5G will deliver on its promise to revolutionize connectivity will depend on several factors, many of which relate to natural, digital and political borders. It is only by dissolving, permeating, or agreeing to ignore or work across some of these boundaries that the technology will reach its full potential.

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