Despite thrilling advertising campaigns promising a revolution is at hand, the basic facts of chemistry and electricity cannot be changed. Recognizing this reality, Huawei engineer Anders Andrea cautioned that given the massive energy needed to support 5G might approach that of the yogabyte. That amount is 10 followed by 24 zeros. This is a number that cannot even be named, let alone imagined.

Adding more fuel to that fire, so to speak, are industry reports that 5G base stations and 5G phones will be power-guzzlers, consuming 3 to 4 times more energy than 4G. One expert group projects that with a move to conserving practices, growth could be limited to 1.5% a year, rather than the 9% underway currently. But the reality is that no matter how efficient devices may become, the surge in projected demand will outweigh these gains.

While Americans and Australians may ponder why their nation lags behind other high-tech nations in commitments to energy efficiency, climate impacts of telecommunications now and in the near future provide an especially ominous issue. It turns out that the highly touted next generation in wireless technology constitutes a menacing energy hog.

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Among the many uncertainties we face now are decisions about how 5G networks should encode wireless signals. The simple story is that there are no 5G voice transmissions in the foreseeable future. Instead, the foundation for voice will rest on a fancy-variant on the current 4G system called orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM).

Adding to the energy pressures, antennas for 5G will need more power and will suck more battery life from phones and devices that link to them. There is no question that wireless 5G will require far more base stations to deliver service. Director of marketing for Radio Frequency at National Instruments, James Kimery, famously said “5G is going to come with a price, and that price is battery consumption.”

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Even worse, the 5G network lacks design and testing specifications, or even adequate machines and metrics for testing exposures. All these are to be created only after the system has been built and tried out through a series of experiments in selected cities.

That’s a pretty massive problem.

Right now, America faces some epic choices. Do we allow the government to subsidize billions for the industry to continue to consume publicly funded resources like phone and utility poles to build a massive 5G network that is without precedent? Do we wait for testing devices and protocols to be developed only after 5G is in operation? Do we plunk down big money for the latest devices now hoping they live up to their hype? Or do we follow the advice of many experts to reduce our own exposure and consumption of energy? Those who will benefit from these industries are not the same as those who are suffering the consequences of their policies.

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With thousands awaiting evacuation now huddled on the shores of Mallacoota or along other parts of a 135-mile seacoast in eastern Australia, when it comes to climate or telecommunications policy, clearly there is no free lunch.