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Beware the 5G smart city divide

Spending like the Jetsons, living like the Flintstones.” That was the key quote from one of the most clear-sighted keynote discussions at the recent Smart City Expo World Congress 2019 in Barcelona. The Lord Mayor of Dublin Paul McAuliffe cut right through the 5G hyperbole with his warning that if 5G rollout is handled incorrectly, it could carve open a 5G-driven social divide within our cities.

The telecoms industry is aware of the divide 5G is likely to cause between urban and rural areas, but perhaps less conscious of the fact the that technology is just as likely to create the same divide within the same city – for example, between business districts and technology parks, which are likely to get coverage first, and more deprived social areas. The same pattern can also be observed in other cities, such as London for example. There, the streets of Westminster seem to be under continuous siege, with new excavations every week. However, the intensity of activity isn’t uniformly distributed. We can speculate that other cities experience the same thing.

McAuliffe pointed out that despite the tech industry’s desire to deliver promise social change and smart city applications with 5G, it could also alienate communities as rollout will inevitably go to more privileged communities first. The challenge for civic authorities and technology firms is to show the value 5G brings to city services and local residents, he said.

“It is [about] value for money: ‘Why are you spending money on the Jetsons, when I’m living like the Flintstones?’ People just want a home, a job, and a way to get to work. This idea of city FOMO – this fear of missing out – is what we are all engaged in, so no one is left behind. But we have to persuade people it is worth investing in, it is worth spending on. And my biggest concern is it is hardest to sell that message to the most disadvantaged communities.”

McAuliffe, an Irish Fianna Fáil politician, represents one of the most deprived in the Irish capital, and its citizens have more fundamental concerns about where their taxes go, and 5G is not among them. However, he noted, it could be if the use cases that could improve their lives are outlined, which of course are still some way off.

This is the important point. 5G must be considered in this light – rollout must meet priorities, but also ensure that public services can be fully and realistically supported, otherwise it will create a further social and digital divide.

“For the first time since electrification, the [5G] industry is going to have a strong physical presence on the streets. And that’s going to force Mrs Murphy to ask: ‘What’s that plastic box on that pole? What does it do? How’s it going to impact me? And why is my city spending [my money] on it?’ And I don’t think any city has started to have that conversation with their citizens,” noted McAuliffe.

One way to ensure this is for authorities, city planners and tech companies to work together and to start a dialogue with members of the public – something that has not yet occurred. However, there are some green shoots. Smart Dublin, for example, is a smart-city cooperative combining the capital’s four local authorities that has been allocated at least €1.2 million for smart city projects. But, importantly, it is geared around two sets of civic challenges, which have been grouped as ‘mobility, connectivity and logistics’ and ‘dumping, flooding and way-finding’. 

However, that is still a difficult conversation to have, particularly in poorer communities. Many urban citizens are still distrustful of city authorities’ ability to provide efficient basic services, such as transport, health and waste management. So, convincing them that 5G will improve their lives is a tough dialogue, further complicated by the political process, whereby politicians, and their priorities, change on a regular basis. Priorities shift, not just according to national targets and agenda, but also due to budgetary pressures and the returns private sector investors expect to receive.

Tech providers are not likely to kickstart these conversations voluntarily, but for the good of all, it is one in which they need to engage. It is perhaps best summed up by one of McAuliffe’s parting comments: “We need to make sure – whether it is climate change, or the rollout of technology – that we bring the basic needs of people with us. Because if we don’t, there are people out there ready to squash this.”