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When Prof Robert Jack broadcast New Zealand’s first radio programme from the University of Otago, on November 17, 1921, he hoped it was a bright new dawn for humanity. Others feared radio’s invisible waves. The reality was country music stations and talkback radio.
One hundred years on, is 5G on the same tragic trajectory?
Almost everyone, it seems, is talking up 5G, the already-on-its-way revolution in wireless digital technology.
It will be a game changer, Prof Holger Regenbrecht, head of information science at the University of Otago, says.
It will unlock opportunities that are simply not possible at present, a Spark telco spokesperson says.
It will lift New Zealand’s productivity, improve the natural environment and enhance the lives of New Zealanders, a Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment spokesperson says.
And let’s not forget Mark Zuckerberg. A fortnight ago, the founder of Facebook unveiled the metaverse — a 5G-dependent, virtual reality-enabled future in which we will work and play through avatars, digital representations of ourselves.
"It’s going to unlock a lot of amazing new experiences. . . You’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine," Zuckerberg says.
In a similar vein, this week, 100 years ago, the transformative power of radio waves was being extolled by enthusiasts of that era’s cutting-edge technology, wireless telegraphy, aka the radio.
New Zealand was at the forefront of that significant shift, thanks to University of Otago physicist Prof Robert Jack.
Just over a year later, on the evening of November 17, the Scottish-born physicist known as Bobby Jack, with the help of his soon-to-be wife Isabella Manson, matron of Knox College, broadcast New Zealand’s first radio programme, from the university’s clocktower building.
The professor’s vision of what he was hoping to create was clear and passionate.
Through radio "the whole life of the community will be broadened and educated by being brought into more effective touch with the life of the whole world", he said.
That first programme, heard as far away as Auckland, was followed by a twice-weekly mix of announcements, gramophone recordings and live music.
Prof Jack then helped establish what is now Radio Dunedin. Radio stations were also set up in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. By the end of 1927, more than 30,000 New Zealand homes had radios.
It seemed as if Prof Jack’s dream was becoming a reality.
Certainly, the discovery of electromagnetic radiation — of which, radio waves are a subset — and figuring out ways to use it, has been one of the top scientific advances of the past 400 years.
In the world of physics, explaining how electricity, magnetism, light and electromagnetic radiation relate to each other is right up there with Newton’s universal law of gravitation, Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory. It provides the basis for all modern electric technology. Without it, not only would we not have radio disseminating information and creative expressions, we would also not have television, X-ray machines, radiation therapy, microwave ovens, cellphones, wireless internet. . .
Not everyone, however, has embraced each new iteration of radio wave technology with joy. It has even been a source of fear — some of it sound, most of it decidedly not.
The fear of X-rays was reasonable. Medical uses began within a year of the discovery of high energy electromagnetic radiation. But, unsurprisingly, blisters, hair loss and skin sloughing off, caused concern. Thomas Edison, known as the inventor of the record player and the light bulb, gave up his X-ray research, saying, “Don’t talk to me about x-rays, I am afraid of them.” But advances in equipment and processes made X-ray and radiation much safer, life-saving tools.
Less well-founded was French statesman Paul Painleve’s concern about the harm this new-fangled wireless telegraphy was causing. In 1926, Painleve, then Minister for War, blamed radio transmissions for the unusually wet and stormy weather France was experiencing. Meteorologists quickly debunked that, pointing instead to sunspot activity.
A fear of radios was sufficiently widespread during the 1920s for the term "radiophobia" to come into usage. The fear did not last long. In 1926, a newspaper in Indiana, US, reported a popular radio exposition at the state fair grounds was "inoculating" thousands of people a day against "radiophobia".
Bad science and conspiracy theories, however, have continued to attach themselves to various forms of radio wave technology.
For decades, opponents of microwave ovens said the contraptions would make food radioactive, render it less nutritious or even cause cancer. All unfounded fears if the oven is used as intended, the World Health Organisation says.
During the 1980s, a study of children with leukaemia raised concerns about living close to overhead power lines. That study was refuted by multiple later studies but the belief persisted, affecting property prices for houses near pylons.
Next decade, it was the turn of the cellphone, accused in a high profile, US, TV interview of causing a fatal brain tumour. That went to court but was thrown out for lack of credible scientific backing.
This millennium, the cellphone has also been blamed for causing male infertility. One 2020 study, which suggested there was a link, exposed semen to a cellphone in talk mode at a distance of 25mm from the samples. Unless you regularly talk on the phone with your head buried deep in your loins, this is probably of little relevance. A meta-study published this year stated carrying a phone in your front trouser pocket posed no conclusive risk to a male’s progenic plans.
One hundred years on, has radio lived up to its promise of enormous benefits?
The tune, far from "broadening and educating", was an inane ditty sung by a man imploring his girlfriend to "Come over, I’m all alone. That’s why I called you by phone."
Within a few decades, Marconi, whose transmitters and receivers allowed radio to happen, was ruing his invention. In an undelivered speech, referred to in a later article, Marconi asked himself if he had "done the world good" or “added a menace". Talkback radio would suggest the latter.
Now, we are stepping through the doorway again, into the next radio wave revolution, 5G.
This 5G is the fifth generation of wireless communication networks.
Compared with what we currently have, that is, 4G, what comes next will allow many more internet-capable devices to send and receive much more data, much faster, using less power.
Data rates will be 10 to 100 times faster than 4G networks. Download speeds will be gigabits per second (Gb/s) rather than tens of megabits per second (Mb/s).
It will achieve that by sending all the data over shorter distances and in a more targeted way. Instead of the few strategically placed cellphone towers of today, 5G will have mini repeater towers every few hundred meters.
The global rollout began last year. In New Zealand, Vodafone was first, launching 5G services in portions of seven centres, including Christchurch and Queenstown. Spark launched in July 2020, in six locations, including Dunedin and Christchurch, and plans to have 90% of the population covered by the end of 2023.
By then, the Government is expected to allocate rights to operate at 26GHz. That is the part of the radio wave spectrum where the really big and super-fast stuff will be able to happen.
The hype around what this will enable is enormous.
The Internet of Things (IoT) — every imaginable device (31 billion of them by 2025), from fridges and stereo speakers to hospital-bed monitors and city power grid sensors, connected to the internet, sending and receiving a constant barrage of information and commands — is predicted to turbocharge New Zealand’s economy.
Virtual reality (VR) — a computer-generated, 3-D environment that will look and feel ever more real — will be a big part of gaming’s growth.
In addition, VR and Augmented Reality (AR) — smart glasses that feed you extra information about what you are seeing as well as keeping you up with all your other digital media — will facilitate Zuckerberg’s metaverse, a better-than-real reality.
Health, education and community will all benefit from 5G, proponents say.
"The successful adoption of 5G technology," an MBIE spokesperson says, "is seen as a critical enabling infrastructure that will ensure New Zealand keeps pace with global developments and provide a platform for the next wave of productivity and innovation in New Zealand."
Driving as fast and loud as 5G hype, but in the opposite direction, are 5G conspiracy theories.
There is the claim 5G radio waves cause cancer. (But there is no solid evidence for any health harms from this source.)
There is the delusion that the Covid-19 vaccination has a 5G chip, allowing us all to be tracked. (But even the smallest 5G chips are far too big to fit through that tiny needle, let alone having room for the chip’s power source to squeeze through too.)
And there is the notion that 5G infects people with Covid-19, either by weakening immunity or spreading the virus directly. (There is no evidence for the first, and the second is impossible because viruses are transmitted by respiratory droplets not wireless networks.)
But still the conspiracy theories persist.
"Research shows how even bizarre ideas that start on the extremes of society can spread, first within a group in one country and then globally as social media allows and supports their repetition," investigative journalist Stephen Davis says.
Davis, author of Operation Trojan Horse and Truthteller, gives the example of the false story about former US president Barack Obama’s birth country. When former US president Donald Trump started promoting the theory, 5% of Republican Party supporters believed it.
"A year later, after endless repetition, the figure was over 50%."
New Zealand is not immune, Davis, who lives in Dunedin, says.
His research shows that last year, when the 5G-causes-Covid story was circulating in New Zealand, at least 20 cellphone towers were burnt down; making us one of the world leaders in this type of conspiracy-fuelled arson.
"There is no evidence whatsover for this theory, but its spread aligns with other fears about new technology."
If you know someone sucked in by these theories, Davis suggests using empathy rather than confrontation, and pointing them to reputable sources of information they can look at for themselves.
Beyond the hype and the conspiracy, what is the likely reality of the 5G transformation?
The past century of radio wave technology suggests a hotchpotch of benefits and harms, with a heavy bias towards technologies that cater to the lowest common denominator.
Without doubt, 5G will enable greater automation and therefore higher productivity. VR, one of the big winners from 5G, is already showing promise in treating phobias. Prof Regenbrecht sees 5G-supported VR building positive connections with hard-to-reach communities, creating novel ways of communicating and interacting and providing a wealth of real-time information for better and faster decision-making.
On the flipside, the wealth of data VR provides about its users makes it "an epicentre for critical issues regarding privacy, security, and digital trust," VR and psychology researcher Oliver Jacobs, of the University of British Columbia, Canada, says.
"I can’t see 5G doing anything but increasing this friction."
Beyond the deliberately beneficial or harmful, history suggests much of the effort to utilise 5G will go into making sure your fridge flawlessly orders more beer from the supermarket; the VR beach resort you frequent has ocean waves and bar staff that sound and feel like the real thing; and, that your avatar, who turns up to your VR office each day, looks so trim and eternally youthful that you never need to brush your teeth, let alone get dressed.
The prospect of life lived in perpetual, dislocated, digital unreality turns the puerile lyrics of Hello My Dearie, transmitted on radio waves by Prof Jack 100 years ago, into a prescient warning for those with ears in 2021.
"Loving like this, some people admire. But, cuddles and kisses you can’t send by wire."