The internet is filled with stories about the promise of a 5G world. Each article seems intent on making sure the reader walks away feeling amazed about what our digital future holds.

But how much faster do we actually need to go?

Cars are an interesting analog. Over the past century-plus, cars enabled us to cross distances in hours that once took travelers days to navigate. And yet, many city dwellers appreciate the slower pace of a walk or a bike ride.

Does the same apply to our digital experiences? When 5G fully rolls out, will there be an option to experience the super-interconnected world a little more … slowly? 

And if not, what might we lose by taking this speed-at-all-costs approach?

The Promise of 5G

Before we dive into an exploration of the benefits of a slower pace, it’s worthwhile to revisit what a 5G world can do for humanity as a whole.

When we’re all connected, downloads that now take minutes (or stall) can come to us in seconds. Sharing information across long distances will happen almost immediately. That helps create a network onto which all sorts of devices can connect.

Sascha Segan, lead analyst at PC Magazine, has a piece about what he discovered when he attended a 5G hackathon in Finland. “The top ideas included a game streaming service; a way to do stroke rehab through VR; smart bandages that track your healing; and a way for parents to interact with babies who are stuck in incubators,” he writes.

Some of these ideas are lifesavers. Medical innovations, in particular, have the potential to deliver care to people miles from a medical center. That can — and should — change the world. 

Group of Telecommunication towers at night

But a 5G Infrastructure Will Be Burdensome 

To enable 5G networks, communities must invest in hardware. And, unfortunately, those transmission points must be located very closely together.

Scott Fulton III, contributing editor to ZDNet, explains that a 5G network relies on multiple micro-cells. They would communicate with 20- to 30-foot towers that blanket the area. The micro-cells are (as the name implies) very small, but the towers are massive.

There’s no evidence that this network will cause health issues. William J. Broad, writing for The New York Times, points out that one scientist with one bad chart sparked health fears about 5G networks. The danger has been debunked, although conspiracy theories remain.

Health concerns aside, most communities will deal with multiple towers, cells and equipment. If you’re a fan of watching nature, or you’d like to look out your window and see only greenery, this can be an alarming prospect. That puts municipal governments in a position of having to choose between greenspace and 5G capabilities.

Conversely, if you live in a rural area, you may not get 5G infrastructure built near you. You need many transmitters located very close to one another for the technology to work, says Gerald Faulhaber, Wharton professor emeritus and former FCC chief economist. “The nature of the infrastructure is that it works in dense areas; it doesn’t work as well in other areas,” he says.

If you live in a rural area, you may have a totally different experience of the digital world than people living in cities do. The disparity in service levels could leave you feeling cut off from the technology others experience.

Security Risks Emerge

With a 5G network enabled, thousands of devices can connect at one time with no lag. Chances are, you have at least one internet-enabled device (e.g. a television or a smart speaker) in your home. After a 5G network goes live, you could have dozens. That connectivity comes with new challenges.

“The transition to 5G will likely create privacy risks associated with new devices, data collection, and use of personal information,” says Brenda Leong, senior counsel and director of artificial intelligence and ethics at Future of Privacy Forum.

“5G access will enable individuals to have more smart devices that can reliably connect and interact with online services; at the same time, the technology can also create more detailed personal data sets for device manufacturers and service providers.”

Your connected refrigerator could order milk when you’re running low, and your enabled microwave could cook meals based on recipes you find online. But at the same time, data about what you cook and what you order could move from your kitchen into an advertising office. 

And since the data transfer happens without an action on your part, you may never see it happening. If you’d like to keep your snack habits private, this could be a concern.

The issue could also extend past mere privacy.

“5G is not just for refrigerators,” Gen. Robert Spalding, former senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, tells The New Yorker. “It’s farm implements, it’s airplanes, it’s all kinds of different things that can actually kill people or that allow someone to reach into the network and direct those things to do what they want them to do. It’s a completely different threat that we’ve never experienced before.”

Protection from that threat could be challenging. How can you ensure that the plane you board isn’t 5G-enabled? Could the car next to you on the highway get hacked and ram into you? 

Changing Communal Experiences

A 5G network could make your phone a whole lot more interesting. When you can download anything you’d like in mere seconds, you might be tempted to use your phone even more than you do now, even while you’re sharing an event with others.

Consider live concerts. A 5G network could deliver crisp and personalized sound from the front of the stage to your spot in the crowd. But the visual experience could be wrecked by everyone holding phones aloft.

This is an issue many of us have already experienced. “People are so engrossed with capturing the live experience they forget to engage in the live experience,” Chad Childers writes at Loudwire.

He was convinced to stop filming concerts because the video quality was poor. A 5G network, however, could facilitate high-quality live streams. Would that change the experience of being at live events?

Don’t think advertisers have failed to consider this.

“SK Telecom has already given us a taste of what 3D ads might look like with 5G,” says Peter Prodromou, chief strategy officer at Boston Digital. “Watch as a dragon circles above a live baseball game ‘terrorizing’ fans. Although this simulation could only be seen through live sports broadcasting channels, it won’t be long before experiences like this will be projected as holograms in real-time.”

If you hope to head to a concert or show to experience something amazing in the company of other humans, this could be disconcerting. And if the ads are better than the show, you may leave wondering whether heading out was worth it at all.

Young smiling bearded male photographer playing online games using modern smartphone connected to 5G wireless internet completing levels

Existing Tech Has Already Altered Our Interactions With One Another

Our phones have changed the way we write to and speak with one another. When those devices can do more, we can expect even more linguistic alterations.

“Nowadays, we mainly exist on bite-sized, information-based messages, where cartoon faces take the place of words and emotions, “ author and journalist Jo Carnegie writes for In the Moment. “I feel like I’m starving myself on a fundamental level.”

If you’re plugged into your phone, an opportunity for meaningful talk can seem like a distraction. Sending an image is quicker than stopping to respond meaningfully. Worse, an engaging 5G experience could keep you so engrossed in your digital life that you ignore the people around you.

That’s already happening, to some extent. Researchers wonder why. 

Yeslam Al-Saggaf, an associate professor at Charles Stuart University, was inspired to study the relationship between cellphones and boredom by watching young people in a cafe. They sat together, but focused all their attention on the devices in front of them.

“I became curious as to why would they go into the trouble of organizing get togethers when they are not going to talk to each other,” Al-Saggaf says. “Is it possible that their face-to-face conversations are no longer as stimulating as their online interactions? Is it possible they still want to enjoy the warmth of the company of each other (i.e., rubbing shoulders) but not the face-to-face conversation?” 

His team’s research found that a lot of the behavior comes down to how easily bored someone becomes and whether they feel it’s socially acceptable to ignore someone sitting next to them. A decade of smartphone evolution has certainly been a factor in both of those conditions.

When your phone has even more delights in store, ignoring others could become more common.

Inescapable Advertising Opportunities

Brand managers and advertising executives know you’ll spend more time online in a 5G world, and they’re thinking about how to make the most of that opportunity.

“With stable and faster internet, consumption is bound to increase,” says Farhan Shaikh, senior consultant at Capgemini Invent. “This will help brands reach a larger audience who have increasingly shorter attention spans. Faster download speeds will mean that brands will be able to invest in personalized communications and engaging web pages/apps without worrying about loading time.”

As their ads grow more engaging, they’ll lean on the data you generate to refine them.

“Customers will continue to generate more and more data about their preferences, habits, locations and more that will help inform a new set of experiences,” says Intel. “This will drive a large market opportunity for companies to use this data to hyper-target their content and advertising and optimize the customer experience.”

You may already feel as though advertisers watch your movements too closely. In a 5G world, they could hover over you at all times. And the personally optimized ads they come up with could be impossible to resist.

The Future is Coming

5G networks bring immense benefits, and no one wants to completely stop their innovative solutions. We all want better healthcare, better connections and a safer community.

But understanding how the technology can change the world around us, and mourning for the digital bike lanes we’re paving over, can help you prepare.

Images by: Wolfgang Hasselmann, Wasin Pummarin/©, Sergey Skripnikov/©

Casey Meehan