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Make sense of France’s rollout of new 5G mobile phone technology

Seen by some as a tech revolution, by others as a health hazard, this new generation mobile network is coming (slowly) to you

5G promises a lot, but with issues like rural coverage and incompatibility with driverless cars, don’t hold your breath just yet Pic: Perry Taylor

Our main image was drawn for The Connexion by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see www.perrytaylor.fr

5G (fifth generation) mobile phones and services are slowly being deployed in France. 

This is despite continuing protests and a spate of opposition campaigns, including groups of eco-warriors setting fire to masts suspected of being used for 5G. 

Read more: Two catholic monks arrested for setting fire to 5G antenna near to Lyon to protect people from harmful effect

Conspiracy theories

Their reasoning for doing so seems to be based on unfounded internet speculation which has convinced them that 5G is bad for the planet, humans, animals and plants. 

Some have even claimed, without any proof, that the Covid outbreak was due to 5G mobile phones. 

Read more: 5G antennas in France do not present risk to health agency confirms

None of this, however, seems to have stopped the services gaining popularity. 

A study by one of the leading analyst groups for the technology industry, CCS Insight, estimates that, by the end of the year, a billion people globally will be able to use 5G. 

Long way to go in rural France

However, the study probably did not look too closely at rural France, where parts still have 2G mobile phone coverage and 4G is still sufficiently new to be remarked upon when it works. 

People living in and near cities are the first to get 5G. Maps, not always very reliable, show at least 17 urban centres in France which have coverage. 

Figures for May, the latest available, show there were 24,949 5G antennas working, compared to 60,385 antennas for 4G. 5G coverage is offered by the four historic operators: Bouygues Telecom, Free Mobile, Orange and SFR. Free currently has the most coverage – see tinyurl.com/5GFrance

Read more: Update: Where is 5G in France now and how is the rollout progressing

Read more: Orange given go-ahead to decommission copper telephone lines in France

5G fundamentally different

Much of the excitement about 5G coverage comes from the way it marks a fundamental difference in how mobile phone technology works. 

In 4G and previous generations of equipment, radio signals from masts are spread out over the area covered by the antenna and then intercepted by a mobile phone when its user wants to make a call or use the internet. 

With 5G technology, it is the mobile phone, or other device, which sends out a signal to the nearest mast, which then ‘points’ its coverage towards the user, instead of the whole area being covered by a signal. 

It is this ‘pointing’ of 5G radio waves which worries the eco-warriors, even though the doses of microwaves are much lower than those found around microwave ovens. 

The system allows much greater bandwidth to be used for specific tasks – for example, allowing entire movies to be downloaded on to a smartphone in minutes with the right sort of expensive data subscription. 

It also makes it easier for the mobile device to move from one 5G antenna’s coverage to another, without the risk of the signal being lost, as can happen with 4G and earlier systems. Networks of 5G antennas alert their neighbours to point their signal when they can do better than the first one. 

Not practical for driverless cars

When there was much excitement about the possibility of driverless cars, it was 5G’s large bandwidth and reliable signal that led people to believe that car manufacturers would embrace the technology. 

Once the practicalities were looked at, though, 5G was not such a good match for self-driving cars as had been thought. For it to work in cities to the required safety standards, you would have to have an antenna on every street to avoid the signal being blocked by buildings. 

Read more: France first EU country to adapt its highway code for self-drive cars

Read more: Semi-autonomous cars now permitted on some French roads

Similarly, its forecast use as a great transformer in industry, allowing machines to communicate with each other without human interference to complete tasks, has stalled, as engineers contemplate the complexity and expense of installing dedicated 5G systems. 

It might happen in the future, but there are few projects on the go now in France, not least because unions are opposed to it, fearing it will lead to job losses. 

What has happened so far?

What has happened is that if you live in an area with 5G coverage, and if you have a compatible smartphone, you can subscribe to 5G mobile phone services for more or less the same price as existing 4G services. 

Read more: Mobile phone bills in France rise by up to 120% due to hidden ‘gifts’

Most people say they do not notice much difference, but operators insist that everything involving mobile data use, from emails to internet use, is quicker and smoother. 

There is also a chance that 5G might be pushed, with a little government help, into rural areas where the great plans to hook up every house to fibre-optic cables have hit the financial buffers, with 30% of France still a long way from being connected. 

Orange and other operators already offer 4G-based modems (at a high price) which are four times faster than ADSL connections. 

If these can be upgraded to 5G, with even better broadband speeds, the need for speed via cable will not be so evident. 

Experiments in industrial uses continue – tenders for special experimental coverage of the La Défense financial sector just outside Paris closed in September, with the urban managers issuing the contract admitting they do not know how it might be used. 

The experiment, which will run through to the end of 2023, will have a use in allowing more measurements of the spread of 5G waves, permitting health experts to carry out evaluations. 

Unused bandwidth will be sold on to mobile phone providers. The rush to 5G, supported by the government, helped knock on the head a leading French technology company, also supported by the government. 

Sigfox, based in Toulouse, was founded in 2009 and became a global leader in “the internet of things”. 

Using so-called 0G technology, it sold kits which allowed factories to have their own reliable radio broadband to run machines and logistics – just the sort of thing 5G promises. 

After investments of at least €275million, it called in the administrators this year, with state bank Bpifrance among the investors who lost their stakes. 

Sigfox was bought by a Singapore company set up by a former employee, who promised to keep some of its activity in France.

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