HS5G2

5G is back in the news, now that the new iPhones are hitting shelves. They're not the first devices to have the tech – not by a long shot – but Apple being Apple, they're likely to be the first owned by normal people. 

(Competitors such as Samsung have, by and large, brought out specific 5G versions of their latest devices, as a way of hedging their bets: you don't want to cram expensive chips, and huge batteries, in a device if its owner is just going to throw a 4G SIM card in it.)

Anyway, in the immediate future, that's probably going to mean a backlash. Because the thing is, 5G is, well, it's fine. The good news is, in the UK, we haven't bothered with the ridiculous mmWave version of the technology, which offers ridiculous speeds but an equally ridiculous lack of coverage. Like, "gets blocked by a tree" ridiculous. "Cross the street and lose all signal" ridiculous. 

But that means that most people will experience 5G as fast, but not insanely fast, mobile internet, that drains their phone's battery slightly faster, and gives their network license to charge them slightly more.

That, in turn, will play into the hands of the 5G truthers, the loose collection of people whose beliefs about 5G range from misguided-but-understandable ("It's new so we should test to make sure it's safe before rolling it out", for instance; that's a bit like saying Mood by 24KGoldn [yes, I just googled the UK number one, and discovered I've only heard one song in the top 20] is new so we should test to make sure it's safe before playing it on Radio One) to completely-fucking-off-the-wall ("Vodafone are rolling it out to give everyone coronavirus"). Because the gateway drug, the chink in the armour, the entrance to the rabbit hole for all those groups is the idea that 5G is unnecessary. If it's unnecessary, then someone must have another motive for pushing it on us. And if they have another motive that they're hiding from us, it's probably because it's a malicious one.

But here's the thing: 5G is HS2. Or HS2 is 5G, maybe it's that way round.

Both are massive infrastructure projects, which won't pay off til years after work begins, and require the co-operation of government and industry at the highest levels. Both, too, were basically far too far along by the time the public started paying attention to them for them to ever really be substantially tweaked.

And both have absolutely fucked up their public messaging by focusing on speed.

Speed is nice for marketing folk. It's sexy, it's obvious, it's cool. Even if it's just a fast train, the ability to say that that train is faster than the previous one is an obvious sell. And so it's no surprise that, if you look at the messaging for both 5G and HS2, you'll see speed front and centre. I mean, it's literally in the name of HS2. 

But the problem is that in both cases, speed is effectively tangential to the real reason for the infrastructure build-out, which is capacity. We don't need a high-speed line running 14 trains per hour between London and Birmingham at speeds of up to 250mph. We just need a new line, because we need to move the express trains off the old West Coast Main Line, because express trains need an absolutely enormous headway and greatly limit the amount of commuter, stopping, and freight trains that can run on a line.

Once you are building a new line in the year 2020, though, the marginal cost of making that new line a high-speed one is slim. Even a "low" speed line is going to to be as straight as possible (the Victorians didn't build embankments because they loved the view from up there), so you don't really save anything on the alignment, and modern safety requirements mean you're probably going to be building something close to high-speed tolerances anyway, particularly if you're planning to run express trains on it.

But because that's hard to sell on a poster, and speed is easy, that's where the focus has been. And so you end up with HS2 opponents, perfectly reasonably, arguing that £90bn isn't worth it to shave 20 minutes off the time to get to London from Birmingham. Which it wouldn't be!

So too with 5G. This nationwide push wouldn't be worth it, really, if speed were the only benefit. And so, of course, it is the same story again: the switch to 5G massively increases the number of phones that can connect to any given mast, greatly improving capacity both for phones with the new technology and also, as more and more people switch, phones still on 4G.

But "switch to 5G, you'll get a speed boost you don't really need, and you'll connect to masts which we told you you'd be able to connect to when we sold you your last phone, but then we ran out of capacity which is why you haven't been able to text anyone in Kings Cross Station since 2013, sorry about that" isn't an easy sell for networks.

And so, again, speed.

To be clear, I don't really blame either group here. "Let me invest billions to keep us basically standing still" is an incredibly hard sell, and "let me invest billions for SPEED" isn't. I don't know if there's a better way to sell 5G or HS2: some people really just never want to see a tree cut down for anything ever and there's no pitch you could make to them which would get them backing new public transport.

I've managed to make it through most of this newsletter without complaining about the fact that the most vociferous opposition to HS2 has come from the UK's green movement, which loves public transport but only if it doesn't involve any construction at all.

See you next week.