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Written By:

Alan Gatherer, Editor in Chief, IEEE ComSoc Technology News

Published: 6 Aug 2015


A few weeks ago, for my sins, I was transportation and security for a crowd of high-spirited teenagers heading off to a youth gathering in Detroit. Each evening the event organizers had a big get-together in the Ford Center, where they packed 30 thousand kids and their adult chaperones in for an evening of unreasonable enthusiasm, unbearably loud music and a few quite interesting talks. There was a lot of talk of social justice at this event; and what all these young folk could, and should, do to help Detroit get back on its feet. In particular, one young lady told us of the Empowerment Plan:  a company she had created based on a class project.  The Empowerment Plan produces coats for the homeless that can double as sleeping bags [1]. OK, so far, so inspiring. But it got me thinking that 5G is possibly the largest, most expensive, class project ever undertaken. So do we expect any social justice to come out the other side of it?

Of course we have a desire to keep engineers like ourselves gainfully employed as well as make OEMs a lot of money in the sale of new equipment, and operators a lot of money by creating a bunch of new, billable services. Not to mention the money that is already being made by the conference people who are running the 5G summits and the like. This is all good, but what are all these services, and can we see them in the light of social justice? The official position document from the ITU does a great job describing what seems to now be the generally agreed upon reasons to have a new standard [2] and includes some great diagrams, one of which I show below.

Figure 1: Future IMT

It's a pretty cool list of new technologies but it isn't too clear how any of this will help the poor, or address any issues of social justice. To be fair, the ITU document points out some general application areas that could have some societal impact.  For example, I found remote medical surgery and transportation safety in the document and perhaps the smart home and smart city concepts will save the planet some electricity. But the bottom line may be that if you want to bill a service, it makes sense to find a person with spare money to spend. Companies will need to convince their shareholders that 5G is worth paying for. So the more dollar signs in the above triangle the better. Even so, it is not a zero-sum game. We could spend the time to think how, like the people at the Empowerment Plan, we can do a little more for the world than providing the bandwidth to check Facebook holographically (though that would be very cool). I wonder if the wireless cellular community has a responsibility, considering how massive we are and how influential we are, and if the IEEE ComSoC, which is the overarching engineering society in the US (and de-facto abroad), has a special role to play, given that the companies we work for are beholden to their stockholders but the IEEE ComSoC can perhaps take a more social role.

But is there evidence of a digital divide between rich and poor, at least in the US, that can be traced back specifically to the wireless cellular infrastructure? To try to answer this question I contacted Prof. Shannon Vallor, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University, who also happens to be President of the Society for Philosophy and Technology (SPT) [3]. She compiled a short list of relevant papers that made for interesting reading and I mention a few here. In [4] a model of socio-economic division based on mobile use was developed from a Korean study. It was used to show that there is a strong correlation between societal position and mobile use. In [5] they propose that there is a growing "mobile internet underclass" of mobile-only users, with little access to broadband, PC-based internet. This is certainly a problem that 5G would claim to solve, provided there is not an economic gap preventing adoption of any new broadband cellular service. In  [6], they address this issue by suggesting that broadband access remain at 5% of the per capita income. Their idea that access to information is a social good could be addressed creatively within 5G as part of support for local caching of information or Device to Device (D2D). If we build a system to support the opportunity for cheap social networks, this can allow community access to essential information. With inexpensive social networks, we may be able to help reduce the digital divide, especially in developing economies.

I think there is no doubt that the cellular industry has had an amazing social impact, from social revolutions in the Middle East to police accountability in the US. However you view it, the impact has been dramatic. But before we become too proud of this, we need to realize that this has happened without the direct support of the wireless community. We have now seen the power the technology that we develop has to change our society. Is it time, with 5G, for us to start thinking about how to steer this technology towards the most social good? Or are we simply not qualified to do anything more than supply bits to people?


  2. “Framework and overall objectives of the future development of IMT for 2020 and beyond”, Draft New Recommendation ITU-R M, 22nd Meeting of Working Party 5D, San Diego, USA, 10-18 June 2015
  4. "Socio-demographic gaps in mobile use, causes, and consequences: a multi-group analysis of the mobile divide model", Lee and Kim (2014),
  5. "The Emerging Mobile Internet Underclass: A Critique of Mobile Internet Access", Napolia et al (2014)
  6. "Mobile Broadband Affordability and the Global Digital Divide -- An Information Ethics Perspective", E J.W. Weiss, et. al., 48th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS), 2015.

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